Thursday, November 19, 2009 11/19/09 - scientists

In today's encore excerpt - science becomes
a profession:

"It is natural to describe key [scientific] events in terms
of the work of individuals who made a mark in
science - Copernicus, Vesalius, Darwin, Wallace and
the rest. But this does not mean that science has
as a result of the work of a string of irreplaceable
geniuses possessed of a special insight into how the
world works. Geniuses maybe (though not always);
but irreplaceable certainly not. Scientific progress
builds step by step, and as the example of Charles
Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace [who independently
and simultaneously put forward the theory of evolution]
shows, when the time is ripe, two or more individuals
may make the next step independently of one another.
It is the luck of the draw, or historical accident, whose
name gets remembered as the discoverer of a new

"What is much more important than human genius is
the development of technology, and it is no surprise
that the start of the scientific revolution 'coincides' with
the development of the telescope and the
microscope. ... If Newton had never lived, scientific
progress might have been held back by a few
decades. But only by a few decades. Edmond Halley
or Robert Hooke might well have come up with the
famous inverse square law of gravity; Gottfried Leibniz
actually did invent calculus independently of Newton
(and made a better job of it); and Christiaan
Huygens's superior wave theory of light was held back
by Newton's espousal of the rival particle theory. ...

"Although the figure of Charles Darwin dominates any
discussion of nineteenth-century science, he is
something of an anomaly. It is during the nineteenth
century - almost exactly during Darwin's lifetime - that
science makes the shift from being a gentlemanly
hobby, where the interests and abilities of a single
individual can have a profound impact, to a
well-populated profession, where progress depends
on the work of many individuals who are, to some
extent, interchangeable. Even in the case of the theory
of natural selection, as we have seen, if Darwin hadn't
come up with the idea, Wallace would have, and from
now on we will increasingly find that discoveries are
made more or less simultaneously by different people
working independently and largely in ignorance of one
another. ...

"The other side of this particular coin,
unfortunately, is that the growing number of scientists
brings with it a growing inertia and resulting
resistance to change, which means that all too often
when some brilliant individual does come up with a
profound new insight into the way the world works,
this is not accepted immediately on merit and may
take a generation to work its way into the collective
received wisdom of science. ...

"In 1766, there were probably no more than 300
people who we would now class as scientists in the
entire world. By 1800, ... there were about a thousand.
By ... 1844, there were about 10,000, and by 1900
somewhere around 100,000. Roughly speaking, the
number of scientists doubled every fifteen years
during the nineteenth century. But remember that the
whole population of Europe doubled, from about 100
million to about 200 million, between 1750 and 1850,
and the population of Britain alone doubled between
1800 and 1850, from roughly 9 million to roughly 18

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House,
Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. xix-xx,


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