11/17/08 - scientists

In today's excerpt - science becomes a profession:

"It is natural to describe key 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 progressed as a result 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 Darwin and Wallace [who independently established the principle of evolution at close to the same time] 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 phenomenon. 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 million."


John Gribbin


The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through The Lives of its Greatest Inventors


Random House


Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin


xix-xx, 359-361
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