An article entitled “Is Eintstein the Last Great Genius?” has rather curiously appeared on Yahoo!, of all places.
It is partly a review of an article that recently appeared in the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics by a Duke engineer named Adrian Bejan. The central claim seems to be that, until the mid-20th century, scientific breakthroughs were typically the province of solitary “geniuses,” but that more recently they have become the products of collectives — highly funded institutes and the like.
First, this strikes me as a vast overgeneralization. Second, I’m not at all certain that the claim that people like Darwin were “solitary geniuses” stands up to scrutiny. Darwin had an enormously complex web of relations with everything from other great scientists to farmers and gamekeepers who sent him information. Certainly there wasn’t much solitary about Edison and his virtual “invention factory.” And what about, say, Crick & Watson’s discovery that DNA is a double-helix? Were they solitary enough to be “solitary geniuses” or are they to be considered just the tip of a large, well-funded institute? There appears to be false dichotomy at work here. Third, why is it that a fellow like this gets major popular press coverage for his (if I may) rather idiosyncratic theory published in an out-of-the-way journal (with respect to the history of science, anyway), while people who devote their careers to the history of science, publishing in the leading journals in the field, get little notice outside of the field?
My suspicion is that it has to do with the kind of theory being proposed. There are parallels here with Dava Sobel’s book Longitude that got rave reviews in the popular press, but was roundly panned by professional historians of science as being a throwback to Carlylian history. Is it possible that a certain class of theory is more naturally amenable to successful treatment in the popular press, even if that class of theory is widely considered by experts in the field to be superficial and unlikely to bear much intellectual fruit?