|Image Source: Loom Love.|
If I had one word to explain human culture at the dawn of the 21st century it would be “viral”. Everybody, it seems, is either afraid of or trying to make something go viral. And as mother of two toddlers in Kindergarten, I am of course well qualified to comment on the issue of spreading diseases, like pinkeye, lice, goat memes, black hole firewalls, and other social infections.Today’s disease is called rainbow loom. It spreads via wrist bands that you are supposed to crochet together from rubber rings. Our daughters are too young to crochet, but that doesn’t prevent them from dragging around piles of tiny rubber bands which they put on their fingers, toes, clothes, toys, bed posts, door knobs and pretty much everything else. I spend a significant amount of my waking hours picking up these rubber bands. The other day I found some in the cereal box. Sooner or later, we’ll accidentally eat one.
But most of the infections the kids bring home are words and ideas. As of recently, they call me “little fart” or “old witch” and, leaving aside the possibility that this is my husband’s vocabulary when I am away, they probably trade these expressions at Kindergarten. I’ll give you two witches for one fart, deal? Lara, amusingly enough, sometimes confuses the words “ass” and “men” – “Arch” and “Mench” in German with her toddler’s lisp. You’re not supposed to laugh, you’re supposed to correct them. It’s “Arsch,” Lara, “SCH, not CH, Arsch.”
Man, as Plato put it, is a zoon politicon, she lives in communities, she is social, she shares, she spreads ideas and viruses. He does too. I pass through Frankfurt international airport on the average once per week. Research shows that the more often you are exposed to a topic the more important do you think it is, regardless of what the source is. It’s the repeated exposure that does it. Once you have a word in your head marked as relevant, your brain keeps pushing it around and hands it back to you to look for further information. Have I said Ebola yet?
Yes, words and ideas, news and memes, go viral, spread, mutate and affect the way we think. And the more connected we are, the more we share, the more we become alike. We see the same things and talk about the same things. Because if you don’t talk about what everybody else talks about who wants to listen?
Not so surprisingly then, it has become fashionable to declare the end of individualism also in science, pointing towards larger and larger collaborations, and increasing co-author networks, the need to share, and the success of sharing. According to this NYT headline, the “ERA OF BIG SCIENCE DIMINISHES ROLE OF LONELY GENIUS”. We can read there
“Born out of the complexity of modern technology, the era of the vast, big-budget research team came into its own with its scientific achievements of 1984.”Yes, that’s right, this headline dates back 30 years.
There lonely genius of course has always been a myth. Science is and has always been a community enterprise. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Most of them are dead, ok, but we’re still standing, standing on these dead people’s shoulders and we’re still talking and talking and talking. I actually think we’re all talking way too much. It’s hard not to have this impression after attending 5 conferences more or less in a row.
Collaboration is very en vogue today, or “trending” as we now say. Nature recently had an article about the measurement of the gravitational constant, G. Not a topic I care deeply about, but the article has an interesting quote:
“Until now, scientists measuring G have competed; everyone necessarily believes in their own value, says Stephan Schlamminger, an experimental physicist at NIST. “A lot of these people have pretty big egos, so it may be difficult,” he says. “I think when people agree which experiment to do, everyone wants their idea put forward. But in the end it will be a compromise, and we are all adults so we can probably agree.”
Working together could even be a stress reliever, says Jens Gundlach, an experimental physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Getting a result that differs from the literature is very uncomfortable, he says. “You think day and night, ‘Did I do everything right?’”And here I was thinking that worrying day and night about whether you did everything right is the essence of science. But apparently that’s too much stress. It’s clearly better we all work together to make this stressful thinking somebody else’s problem. Can you have a look at my notes and find that missing sign?
The Chinese, as you have almost certainly read, are about to overtake the world, and in that effort they now overhaul their science research system. Nature magazine informs us that the idea of this overhaul is “to encourage scientists to collaborate on fewer, large problems, rather than to churn out marginal advances in disparate projects that can be used to seek multiple grants. “Teamwork is the key word,” says Mu-Ming Poo, director of the CAS Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai.” Essentially, it seems, they’re giving out salary increases for scientists to think the same thing as others.
I’m a miserable cook. My mode of operation is taking whatever is in the fridge, throwing it into a pan with loads of butter, making sure it’s really dead, and then pouring salt over it. (So you don’t notice the rubber bands.) Yes, I’m a miserable cook. But I know one thing about cooking: if you cook it for too long or stir too much, all you get is mush. It’s the same with ideas. We’re better off with various individual approaches than one collaborative one. Too much systemic risk in putting all your eggs in the same journal.
The kids, they also bring home sand-bathed gummy bears that I am supposed to wash, their friend’s socks, and stacks of millimeter paper glued together because GLUE! Apparently some store donated cubic meters of this paper to the Kindergarten because nobody buys it anymore. I recall having to draw my error bars on this paper, always trying not to use an eraser because the grid would rub away with the pencil. Those were the days.
We speak about ideas going viral, but we never speak about what happens after this. We get immune. The first time I heard about the Stückelberg mechanism I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Now it’s on the daily increasing list of oh-yeah-this-thing. I’ve always liked the myth of the lonely genius. I have a new office mate. She is very quiet.