‘No more heroes any more,” went the punk anthem, and last week the eminent Cambridge physicist Athene Donald argued in this newspaper that this is especially true in the world of science. Progress today, she says, does not come about through the insights of great men or women working alone, but via the systematic collaboration of hundreds, or even thousands, of researchers.
Well, I beg to differ. Tomorrow night at the Royal Society, I will counter that if science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.
In the light of several popular, myth-busting history books, this is an unfashionable view. In Fabulous Science (2002), John Waller insists that many popular portraits of “great scientists” are romantic inventions, hagiographies that underplay the contributions of the many to focus on a fallible few who resorted to low cunning as much as technical virtuosity. When, for example, Sir Arthur Eddington “confirmed” general relativity and helped turn Einstein into a superstar, he subjected his results to what Waller calls “extensive cosmetic surgery”.
It is true that if you examine the details of a breakthrough, you may well discover a story more complicated than populist accounts suggest. Lone genius does seem to be becoming rarer as researchers join forces, whether the 10,000 working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, or the mathematicians cooperating in Sir Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project. Modern science, it can be argued, is simply too big for a Faraday or Einstein to change its direction.
Nevertheless it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants, where if any one person perishes, progress is unaffected. Do we want to deny the significance of the likes of Isaac Newton and Marie Curie? Would we want to lose the story of the Principia, in which Newton gave us his laws of motion and universal gravitation? Or how Curie won two Nobel prizes before dying of aplastic anaemia brought on by years of exposure to radiation?