Few myths have been busted as often and as cheerfully as that of the lone genius. “Future discoveries are more likely to be made by scientists sharing ideas than a lone genius,” declares Athene Donald in the Guardian, and Joshua Wolf Shenk opines in the NYT that “the lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness.” Thinking on your own is so yesterday; today is collaboration. “Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network,” Shenk goes on. It sounds scary.There is little doubt that with the advance of information technology, collaborations have been flourishing. As Mott Greene has observed, single authors are an endangered species: “Any issue of Nature today has nearly the same number of Articles and Letters as one from 1950, but about four times as many authors. The lone author has all but disappeared. In most fields outside mathematics, fewer and fewer people know enough to work and write alone.”
Science Watch keeps tracks of the data. The average number of authors per paper has risen from 2.5 in the early 1980s to more than five today. At the same time, the fraction of single authored papers has declined from more than 30% to about 10%.
Part of the reason for this trend is that the combination of expertise achieved by collaboration opens new possibilities that are being exploited. This would suggest that the increase is temporary and will eventually stagnate or start declining again once the potential in these connections has been fully put to use.
But I don’t think the popularity of larger collaborations is going to decline anytime soon, because for some purposes one paper with five authors counts as five papers. If I list a paper on our institutional preprint list, nobody cares how many coauthors it has – it counts as one more paper, and my coauthors’ institutions can be equally happy about adding a paper to their count. If you work on the average with 5 coauthors and divide up the work fairly, your publication list will end up being five times as long as if you’d be working alone. The logical goal of this accounting can only be that we all coauthor every paper that gets published.
So, have the numbers spoken and demonstrated the lone genius is no more?
Well, most scientists aren’t geniuses and nobody really agrees what that means anyway, so let us ask instead what happened to the lone scientists.
The “lone scientist” isn’t so much a myth than an oxymoron. Science is ultimately a community enterprise – an idea not communicated will never become accepted part of science. But the lone scientist has always existed and certainly still exists as a mode of operation, as a step on the path to an idea worth developing. Declaring lonely work a myth is deeply ironic for the graduate student stuck with an assigned project nobody seems to care about. In theoretical physics research often means making yourself world expert on whatever topic, whether you picked it for yourself or whether somebody else thought it was a good idea. And loneliness is the flipside of this specialization.
That researchers may sometimes be lonely in their quest doesn’t imply they are alone or they don’t talk to each other. But when you are the midst of working out an idea that isn’t yet fully developed, there is really nobody who will understand what you are trying to do. Possibly not even you yourself understand.
We use and abuse our colleagues as sounding boards, because attempting to explain yourself to somebody else can work wonders to clarify your own thoughts, even though the person doesn’t understand a word. I have been both at the giving and receiving end of this process. A colleague, who shall remain unnamed, on occasion simply falls asleep while I am trying to make sense. My husband deserves credit for enduring my ramblings about failed calculations even though he doesn’t have a clue what I mean. And I’ve learned to listen rather than just declaring that I don’t know a thing about whatever.
So the historians pointing out that Einstein didn’t work in isolation, and that he met frequently with other researchers to discuss, do not give honor to the frustrating and often painful process of having to work through a calculation one doesn’t know how to do in the first place. It is evident from Einstein’s biography and publications that he spent years trying to find the right equations, working with a mathematical apparatus that was unfamiliar to most researchers back then. There was nobody who could have helped him trying to find the successful description that his intuition looked for.
Not all physicists are Einstein of course, and many of us work on topics where the methodology is well developed and widely shared. But it is very common to get stuck while trying to find a mathematically accurate framework for an idea that, without having found what one is looking for, remains difficult or impossible to communicate. This leaves us alone with that potentially brilliant idea and the task of having to sort out our messy thoughts well enough to even be able to make sense to our colleagues.
Robert Nemiroff, Professor of Physics at Michigan Tech, noted down his process of working on a new paper aptly in a long string of partly circular and confused attempts intersected by doubts, insights and new starts:
“writing short bits of my budding new manuscript on a word processor; realizing I don't know what I am talking about; thinking through another key point; coming to a conclusion; coming to another conclusion in contradiction to the last conclusion; realizing that I have framed the paper in a naive fashion and delete sections (but saving all drafts just in case); starting to write a new section; realizing I don't know what I am talking about; worrying that this whole project is going nowhere new; being grouchy because if this is going nowhere then I am wasting my time; comforting myself with the thought that at least now I better understand something that I should have better understood earlier; starring at my whiteboard for several minute stretches occasionally sketching a small diagram or writing a key equation; thinking how cool this is and wondering if anyone else understands this mini- sub- topic in this much detail; realizing a new potential search term and doing a literature search for it in ADS and Google; finding my own work feeling reassured that perhaps I am actually a reasonable scientist; finding key references that address some part of this idea that I didn't know about and feeling like an idiot; reading those papers and thinking how brilliant those authors are and how I could never write papers this good...”At least for now we’re all alone in our heads. And as long as that remains so, the scientist struggling to make sense alone will remain reality.