Sunday 3 September 2023

Are scientific geniuses dispensable in a way that artistic geniuses are not?

Watson and Crick and the model of DNA - a great image that captures the joy and wonder of real science!

It is a commonplace assertion that because science is a social activity, and (supposedly) objective; scientific geniuses do not leave a personal stamp upon their work in the way that (it is assumed) artistic geniuses do. For instance, it might be said that nobody else but Shakespeare could have written Hamlet, while if Newton had not lived, then everything he accomplished would have been done by others. 

I have come to regard this as profoundly false - on both sides, scientific and artistic! The nature of creative genius is essentially the same, and intensely personal and individual, in whatever the domain it is operating. 

This generalization derives from the fact that - whenever one has sufficient information to understand a major work of genius; then the individuality of the creative contribution is evident. 

What generally happens is that the genius, in making the 'breakthrough' work, is able to 'see' something, to 'know' something, that is very difficult or impossible for him to communicate to others. 

Indeed, this extreme difficulty of communicating that which is qualitatively new is something like a definition of a work of genius. If the genius can find one other person who understands, who follows the chain of reasoning or grasps the way something 'works' - then he is unusual and fortunate. 

Because usually geniuses do their work alone, and if that work is taken-up more widely, then it is often without real understanding - simply by 'applying' some partially-grasped or selective aspect of the whole. 

That a work of genius, like Hamlet, is uniquely linked to its creator turns-out, on closer examination, to be much less straightforward than it seems. After all, what do we mean by Hamlet? 

There are many textual versions, of widely varied lengths, derived from various sources by multiple editors and scholars. And then there is the question of whether the real Hamlet is indeed a text, or a play being-performed by a particular set of actors, on a particular day (or in a particular recorded medium) - and therefore, which of the multi-thousands of performed versions is the real Hamlet? 

My point here is that: yes, of course, Hamlet is an unique work of genius that depended on a specific person for its special quality; but also it shares the same social and collaborative quality that is more evident in scientific creation.   

And on the other hand genuine scientific creativity seems always to be distinctively personal. 

This struck me yesterday when reconsidering Crick and Watson's discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA*; which is a famous example of a major scientific breakthrough that is generally assumed to have been merely an instance of the discoverers "getting there first". That is even how Watson presents the story in his The Double Helix book: as a race against Linus Pauling. 

I have read widely and deeply behind this discovery, and realize that it involved the work of a very large number of people from many countries, plus a particular and focal bringing together of the right people in the right places. So at first it seems like a collaborative effort in which the individuals are dispensable.

Yet, such an assertion is post hoc, after the fact of the discovery; a retrospective judgment that slides-over and mashes-together what were specifically individual and creative insights. 

For instance it is well known that Rosalind Franklin could not perceive the significance of her technical work; not least because she regarded DNA as 'just another' chemical to be analyzed using the best of established procedures, rather than of interest essentially because of having a vital biological function. 

In other words, the DNA structure could only be understood and discovered by someone who was asking the right questions, because thinking "biologically".  

In contrast, Francis Crick had (apparently) developed a (literally) unique ability to understand the relationship between molecular structures and the images from X-Ray crystallography. This gave him (and nobody else!) an ability to perceive what structures could and could-not be inferred from images, and what images would be expected from different types of molecule. This was a vital aspect of the discovery of the DNA double-helix. 

What is interesting is that Crick couldn't explain what he was doing to anybody else, not even to Watson. Or, to put it differently, Watson could not understand what Crick was doing, how he was reasoning, despite many attempts at explaining - nor could anyone else. 

Only later, looking back, was the fact of Crick's ability acknowledged; yet, even that acknowledgement does not mean what Crick was doing was genuinely understood.  

My point is that works of scientific genius seem always to contain such very personal, and seemingly unique, insights and abilities. My conclusion is that without such people, then the qualitative breakthroughs just don't happen.   

Most people simply can-not (plus will-not - i.e. they do not want to) think or work in genuinely new, different, distinctive ways - they cannot-willnot go-it-alone. (They function socially, and are motivated externally - whereas the genius's motivation is substantially endogenous.)  

So far as I can tell (where there is sufficient information) all geniuses of all kinds are in the position of doing some-thing that takes them our and away from social support, social acceptance, social understanding. 

Of course, as such, this is merely a negative attainment - but it is also the inevitable consequence of exceptional individual creativity, successfully at-work. 

The ultimate point of this; is that creativity is the product of an individual, and is indeed a divine attribute; therefore ultimately inexplicable - which is why it cannot ever really be understood by others. Great scientific achievements like the discovery of the DNA structure can be seen necessarily to include such elements of creativity, sometimes more than one such, sometimes from several people. In contrast; the idea that "science" can be set-up and administered and function as a bureaucracy (operating by 'objective' consensus) naturally denies this essential creative reality; and the consequence is that no real science is actually being done


*I recommend that you watch the 1987 BBC Horizon movie drama starring called originally Life Story, later confusingly (because there is a documentary with the same title) re-titled The Race for the Double Helix

The drama stars Jeff Goldblum as Watson, Tim Pigott-Smith as Crick, and Juliette Stevenson as Franklin. A superb, all-time-great, musical score was done by Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Life Story is simply The Best drama I have ever seen about real science, and moves me to tears every time I watch it (last time was yesterday).

Thanks very much to commentefurudo.erika for letting me know that a nice crisp copy of Life Story can be found On Vimeo:


My name is Matt said...

It must of been necessary to deemphasize the role of creative genius in science in order to seed it with lies. Lies of the sort that are useful to destruction oriented bureaucrats.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

As one who has come to know James Watson over the last 20 years or so, I can attest that he is sui generis. If biologists other than Crick and Watson had reached the same understanding of the double-helix and all that follows, I'm sure they'd have got there by a very different way - if they'd been able to figure it out at all.
Are the scientists of today capable of such breakthroughs? After watching assorted credentialed covidiots pontificating on the tube over the last few years, I wonder...
Your genius famine at work, Bruce?

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Life Story sounds good - but I have to note that the real Watson is nothing like Jeff Goldblum!

Bruce Charlton said...

@HRS - I never met Watson, but he sent me a thank-you letter because I was just about the only scientist who defended him in print (and commissioned a review article in his support) during the 2007 witch hunt:

furudo.erika said...

While it is possible to resynch audio, using the tools menu in VLC for example, those interested in watching Life Story: The Race for the Double Helix might want to try looking on Vimeo with the lucky number 179934156

No Longer Reading said...

I agree.

Pretty much all discourse assumes the opposite, that science is just a matter of getting there first.

But if that's not true, then this has substantial consequences for how science works.

For one thing, it means that much of science could have been otherwise. And since discoveries build on each other, the further back you go, the more things could have gone completely differently if things had not happened the way they did.

Indeed, one of the major assumptions behind discourse is that scientific and technological developments follow an inevitable linear progression. Left, right, and even many religious people all believe that. But if it's not the case, then we have to completely rethink things.

Also, it is likely the case that some scientific discoveries have remained unknown because no one was interested or no one was able to understand the insight of the discoverer. A lot of times it is that there is some more obvious way to demonstrate that the discovery is correct or that there is someone interested enough to enter at least partially into the understanding of the discoverer who can then communicate it that leads to it being more widely known.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - Some very good points there.

"things could have gone completely differently if things had not happened the way they did"

Absolutely true; for worse as well as for better - there have been bad ideas that have grossly distorted subsequent science, usually because they are backed by vested interests and money. "Mega-trials" - very large, "simplified", clinical trials of medical therapies; put forward as the best/ gold standard of evidence of effectiveness - are one example.

This idea - which has essentially rationalized the destruction of medicine over the several decades, and enabled its takeover by managers and corporations - is rooted in a simple error. Simple, in that it can be explained to anyone who will listen and is interested in the truth, a couple of minutes; and yet - there it is! It has changed the whole world!

As I have said so many times - motivation is nearly always the key; and if people are not motivated by wanting to know the truth and communicate truthfully - then there is no science.

But if people are motivated by truth, great breakthroughs in understanding can result. However, in a world where almost nobody is truth-motivated, great breakthroughs will with on the vine.