July 20, 2016
From: Reddit AMA
Which do you think is more important to the history of science: the accomplishments of scientific geniuses or the broader research trends of the scientific community?
As in so many things, new ideas and new directions in science are most often the result of leadership by one or a small number of people. But almost always, they have to build on lots of detailed work that’s been done by many other people.
But even after someone comes up with a great idea, there’s the question of how it gets absorbed into the canon of science. And that’s a process that usually involves the broader scientific community. I say usually because there are cases where for example the idea gets used in technology, and becomes visible there, long before the scientific community really takes it seriously.
Mathematics is a great example of where the scientific community can be crucial in what happens. Someone (like Ramanujan) can discover some amazing mathematical fact. And it can be correct, and verified, and everything. But does anyone care? Well, that depends on whether the fact connects to what people understand. A random fact won’t be absorbed into the canon of science; it has to have a whole structure—a whole story—around it.
I’ve been involved in an interesting case of all this with A New Kind of Science and the exploration of the computational universe. Long before I did my work there were isolated examples of simple programs that showed complicated behavior. (Several people in Idea Makers actually saw these.) But nobody knew what they meant; they considered them curiosities and ignored them. When I started studying such things I found so many examples, that were so clear, that it became clear that there had to be a bigger story, which I think I managed to elucidate in A New Kind of Science. There’ve been thousands of papers now based on A New Kind of Science, and plenty of technology. I tried to do my part, as the “individual scientist” bringing these ideas together. Now there’s going to be a many-decade process of absorption throughout the world of science, in the process of which many important details and applications will be filled in. But I don’t think this would happen without my “individual scientist” effort.