Is Careful History Inherently Unpopularizable?

Albert EinsteinAn 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?

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

2 thoughts on “Is Careful History Inherently Unpopularizable?

  1. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. and not just for history – most academic research leads to more questions than it answers and rarely leaves you with a nice, easily digestible story. In science, for example, any attempt to popularize the results of a study usually leaves out some important caveats or details. That’s almost what the word “popularize” means, if you think about it – if laymen could (and wanted to) understand academic papers they would just read them and there would be no need for popularization.

    By the way, you might be interested in something I wrote about the history of psychiatry : here
    or even better you might think it’s nonsense and correct my mistakes!

  2. Thank you for commenting on my work.

    My actual article and its “central claim” are available at

    My view is that science generation is a natural and global flow system, constantly morphing to flow more easily, like all the other flow systems, animate and inanimate. This natural evolutionary tendency of configuration generation in time is the Constructal Law.

    This view leads to several predictions, which a supported by observations across the board. For example, a free research institution will self-organize into individuals and groups (empires), in the right proportions. On the last page of my article, I explain why these findings are relevant to all researchers and especially to administrators who promote large groups from above.

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