Heroes a footnote

It seems that the debate on heroes of science, their existence and their uses, is expanding. Athene Donald added two posts on the subject one at The Telegraph and one on her blog. In her Telegraph piece Athene considers the iconic image is of a lone genius quoting Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Einstein as examples of this genus. She goes on to say that she believes that the age of the lone hero(ine) scientist is past. She argues that modern science is a collective enterprise with the team at the centre and not the individual. In the latest contribution to the debate Darin Hayton in a post at PACHS argues that the concept of lone hero is in itself a myth because the scientific achievements of these researchers only become such when they are accepted and ratified by their peers. I would go one step further and argue that even in the process of creation or development of those achievements that the iconic image is of a lone genius beavering away in some secluded room [Athene, Telegraph] is also largely a myth.

Galileo cooperated with Guidobaldo del Monte and Paolo Sarpi on most of his important discoveries in physics. His telescopes were created in cooperation with glassmakers and a technician who ground his lenses. Several of his most important texts were almost written by committee by his friends and associates in the Accademia dei Lincei who also published them. In his letters his discusses his work with a wide range of knowledgeable correspondents, not quite the secluded room of Athene’s image. The same is just as true for Descartes much of whose work was produced in cooperation with Isaac Beeckman and Marin Mersenne amongst others and whose list of scientific correspondents was even longer than Galileo’s. Newton comes closer to the lone wolf vision evoked by Athene but his work in almost all areas of his maths and physics builds on the work of a small army of predecessors even if he wasn’t always open about his debt to others. His scientific correspondence was also very extensive. He left the writing of second and third editions of his two principle scientific work, The Optics and Principia, almost entirely to others only dictating the changes they were required to make and editing the end products. Without going into detail the same is certainly true of Einstein.

None of these men was, in John Donne’s famous phrase, an island but each of them was tied into the scientific community of their times and location. Bouncing ideas off correspondents, letting trusted colleagues proofread their publications, finding inspiration for their advances in the work of others and reacting to the criticism of their peers. The age of the lone genius is not past, the lone genius never existed; he is a myth.

Addendum 3 October: Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has added a very thoughtful and interesting post on both the Whig interpretation of history and the misuse of heroism in history of science narrative at her Guardian The H-Word Blog


Filed under Myths of Science

3 responses to “Heroes a footnote

  1. Darwin in Down House is another such icon.

    Given a hero-giant association, how about renaming the histsci carnival into Human Pyramid’s Shoulders?

  2. An historical narrative is analogous to a measure of central tendency. Like an average, it leaves an awful lot out, even when it’s a good one. That said, my favored kind of narrative is not the great man version of history, but the great clique theory: intellectual movements as ensemble comedy. When a critical mass of live spirits gets in touch in a particular era, things happen. Absent the gang, lone wolves are pretty forlorn animals—even famously solitary figures like Kurt Godel or Arthur Schopenhauer were actually pretty well connected, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have heard of ’em. Of course the great clique theory has its limitations; for example, especially in the sciences, it’s unfair to the even smaller figures that make the various enterprises of knowledge possible. I used to know the salesman who detailed Purina Rat Chow to the psych labs at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s part of the sciences, too, if you think of ’em as I sometimes do as a social and economic phenomenon—the giants stand on the shoulders of dwarves.

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