How come we don't have another Einstein of our era?
November 10, 2008 8:11 PM   Subscribe

How come we don't have another Einstein of our era?

What I mean to say is in the past we have many famous people that have revolutionized our world:

Tesla, Einstein, Curie, Newton, Edison, etc

Why haven't we seen people like these in the past 10-20 years yet?
posted by rintako to Science & Nature (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Stephen Hawking?
posted by borkencode at 8:18 PM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think it's because we only fully comprehend someone's importance in hindsight. Who knows what we'll think of, say, Stephen Hawking or Donald Knuth?
posted by danb at 8:19 PM on November 10, 2008

Because a lot of these characters are media creations and shameless self-promoters. Tesla and Edison especially. Einstein spent a lot of his life lecturing and giving speeches, hence all the bumperstickers and quotes. He really made an effort to get out there and be very media friendly.

You know these names not only because of their contributions but because there's a consensus out there that every schoolboy should know these names and their contributions. The politics of this consensus is interesting but arguable somewhat arbitrary. It takes time to be "one of the greats."

Its also worth mentioning that as things because more complex you have less 'lone inventors' in the garage and more teams of engineers. Its hard to give credit to a team and its easier for us just to hold up one individual.

Revolutionized our world, eh? How about:

Alan Turing
Steve Wozniak
Bill Gates

and thats just computers. There's more in medicine, space exploration, military technology, natural sciences, etc. Which ones end up in a badly written history book aimed at 5th graders is beyond my powers of precognition, but there are definitely lumanries among us. Who decides and how they decide is the real question.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2008 [7 favorites]

FWIW, Einstein for a long time was absolutely against quantum mechanics. Perhaps without his incredible celebrity and influence people like Karl Heisenberg would be a bit more famous. Interesting how we dont really know Einstein's faults. Its not part of the dialogue of "the greats."
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:33 PM on November 10, 2008

Why haven't we seen people like these in the past 10-20 years yet?

What makes you think we haven't? I think that Andy Grove has done more to revolutionize the world than Einstein ever did.
posted by Class Goat at 8:37 PM on November 10, 2008

@damn dirty ape — do you mean Werner Heisenberg? Karl was his middle name, but I've never heard anyone refer to him by Karl alone. I would also dispute the claim that "we dont [sic] really know Einstein's faults"; the story that he didn't learn to speak until about the age of three is pretty well-known in popular lore, and often used to encourage parents who are concerned about their child's development.
posted by likedoomsday at 8:40 PM on November 10, 2008

A different point: the "hero" model of engineering and scientific advancement is a bit of a myth. It's true that such people do exist in history, but their influence and important tends to become mythically overstated. The simple fact is that science and engineering are group activities, the combined result of hundreds of thousands of faceless people working away doing just a bit at a time. No single one of them stands out as a star or hero, yet in their multitudes they accomplish far more than any "hero" of science in history.
posted by Class Goat at 8:40 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Science is more collaborative than ever before. Much of the low-hanging fruit is gone in the established fields of science, and more and more, large teams of scientists are required to make the breakthroughs. Work coming out of the human genome project and the CERN supercollider are two good examples of projects that employ hundreds or thousands of scientists.

This has lead to much controversy in recent years about Nobel prizes, since they're limited to only three recipients.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:42 PM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Setting aside the obvious knee-jerk response - "What, Stephen Hawking isn't good enough for you?" - it's important to keep in mind that in addition to being of great scientific importance, the folks you mentioned are all very well-known, eg, famous. There's a lot lot of science that goes on all the time without its practitioners being particularly noticed by the public; nearly all of them will be, as individuals, forgotten by the world even as their work changes our lives. Can you name the people responsible for the work that's being done in neuroscience that may well lead to "perfect" prosthetics, or artificial eyes that work better than the real thing and plug into the same neurons as your real eyes? No? Well think back; can you name the guy who figured out lasers? How about the internal combustion engine?

Einstein was pretty well known, even to laypeople. Sciency folks recognize names like Planck and Oppenheimer readily; the layman probably doesn't. A lot of the nerdy folks I run with consider Richard Feynman a kind of superscientist trickster-god; the average American, even college-educated, has never heard of him.

Edison was a businessman and engineer, and while he's a prominent figure, it seems odd to class him with those whose work was largely theoretical, even if it resulted in huge changes; Tesla's importance to science is matched by many, but we remember him because of his eccentricity and rivalry with Edison. Like Bill Gates and Henry Ford, Edison's technological impact on the country was really linked more to the business side - what he did with the technology, rather than the actual advances. (I'm oversimplifying here, but I hope I'm making a sensible point.)

As for Newton - okay, sure, he was a hyper-talented polymath who revolutionized half a dozen fields; at the same time, he was also around in a time of great progress, and surrounded by "merely" super-talented polymaths who only revolutionized four or five fields. But we have limited space in our collective pantheon for 17th-century natural philosophers, so we pick Newton.

Science does not lend itself to creating celebrities; few discoveries have immediate effects, and almost by definition their sources and consequences are difficult for even an intelligent, understanding layperson to grasp. Despite his accomplishments, do you really think Hawking would really be as well-known as he is, if not for the poetic contrast of a man trapped in a nearly-useless body exploring the cosmos? Einstein happened to do his work at a time when it became useful for war purposes, and he became a political/social figure as much as a scientific one. Edison and Tesla had their War of the Currents to get entrenched into the public eye as dramatic figures.

In short: I would argue that what you've cited aren't "Great Scientists" so much as Scientific Celebrities.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:51 PM on November 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

Have to chime in here and correct damn dirty ape's claims about Einstein.
Read this
Note this section:
His one Nobel medal (he surely should have got at least two), awarded in 1921 and presented in 1922, was for his pioneering work in quantum theory. If Planck hadn't fathered quantum theory (see Max Planck and the origins of quantum theory) that role may well have fallen to Einstein. As it was, Einstein was the first person to take the physical implications of Planck's work seriously. The turning point came when he saw how Planck's idea of energy quanta could be used to account for some puzzling facts that had emerged about a phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect. .

Thus, Einstein was actually the biggest early proponent and co-inventor of quantum theory, not against it.

Also, Werner Heisenberg is extremely famous, but not so much under the moniker 'Karl'.

As to the original question, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are modern equivalents to Edison. Steven Hawking is similar in fame to Einstein. As to actual achievements, they are still giving out Nobel Prizes in physics every year; it took many years for einstein to gain fame after his Nobel prize was won.
posted by Osmanthus at 8:54 PM on November 10, 2008

He's out surfing.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:55 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

(If you don't like my citing Bill Gates, just pretend I wrote "Andy Grove.")
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:58 PM on November 10, 2008

The most important scientist/engineer of the 20th Century that almost no one outside his field knows about is Claude Shannon. It's difficult to overstate just how important and revolutionary Information Theory was and is. Just ask any electrical engineer.

And it is entirely the work of one man. He wrote a single paper; before that paper came out, Information Theory didn't exist. After the paper came out, Information Theory was complete and he had also done all of the work of turning it into engineering practice. A truly titanic achievement for one of the great minds of our time -- and almost no one outside of certain technical fields has heard of him.

As Tomorrowful says, it's the difference between "genius" and "celebrity". Shannon was unquestionably a genius.
posted by Class Goat at 9:04 PM on November 10, 2008 [7 favorites]

I suspect you don't know what your questions means.

We've many scientists who as smart as Einstein, some more prolific over their careers. I can't name any who've pulled his trick of three diverse revolutionary articles in one year, but they surely exist. We can't say easily however because most scientists avoid excessive publicity and scientific disciplines are more focused today (see earlier comments).

You also have science popularizers like Dawkins & those on, but very few popularizers are also winning Nobel Prizes, especially not repeatedly winning them. Einstein was fairly political once he got older.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:10 PM on November 10, 2008

What I mean to say is in the past we have many famous people that have revolutionized our world: Tesla, Einstein, Curie, Newton, Edison, etc.

Why haven't we seen people like these in the past 10-20 years yet?

Your question answers itself.

Why haven't we seen people like this in the past 10-20 years?

Well, let's start with the fact that most of the people you cite were not really working contemporaries, and 10-20 years is a small slice to look at.

Tesla: 1856 – 1943
Einstein: 1879 – 1955
Curie: 1867–1934
Newton: 1643 – 1727
Edison: 1847 – 1931

So, in 1900 (it's an arbitrary date, but go with me here), Edison is age 53, Tesla is 44, Curie is 33 and Einstein is 21.

In 1900, At this point, Edison's scientific work is effectively over. He continues on as a wildly successful businessman, but his pure science output is effectively zero.

In 1900, after a few years largely out of sight in Colorado, Tesla started work on his Wardenclyffe Tower facility, which never really proved as successful as he figured. His career goes downhill from there.

In 1900, Curie is three years away from her first Nobel Prize, which she shares with her husband Pierre and doctoral supervisor Henri Becquerel. In 1906, Pierre is killed, and Marie starts with the Sorbonne. Her research years are effectively over, but she wins a second Nobel in 1911.

In 1900, Einstein is a patent clerk. He doesn't really get internationally famous until 1919, when a bunch of scientists all go, "Holy shit, he's right," at about the same time.

So, why haven't we seen guys like this in the past 10-20 years? It's because to do that would be like looking at the world through a straw.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:35 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Would you count Watson and Crick (and Franklin) as "of our era"? Their work on DNA was in the early fifties, the Nobel was in the sixties, and Watson himself is still walking around. And, surely DNA has had as much impact on the scientific landscape as relativity.
posted by mhum at 10:23 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Who decides and how they decide is the real question.

Indeed. This came up in a recent course I was taking. According to my prof, in any age the problems of the day and their solutions are kind of present in the fabric of society, swirling in the air waiting to be made concrete. It's no accident that Darwin was working on evolution; the origin of man was the great question of his era (and he was not the only one to look at the problem, or even to find the solution). What made him famous was that he was the first to turn the chaos into order, collecting a mess of ideas into a coherent framework. As such his work became a focal point whenever the great question was discussed.

The big issues of our time are still swirling around. But you could look at climate change for example and name a few revolutionaries -- Al Gore, or perhaps David Suzuki -- who might be candidates.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:15 PM on November 10, 2008

Check out any decent history of science text. Most historical discoveries had a close antecedent or precedent who was either not published quick enough or put together a slightly less comprehensive explanation. See: Newton vs Leibniz, Watson/Crick vs. Linus Pauling, Darwin vs. Alfred Russell Wallace. Perhaps one of the only counterexamples that springs to mind would be Newton where his sheer genius pushed several discoveries perhaps 10-20 years earlier than they otherwise would have been accepted.

If you examine any new field, the big breakthroughs are almost all made in the first 10-15 years after discovery, e.g. DNA, electricity, film. The easy discoveries are made first because they are easy. The more complex discoveries need more painful work to unearth and are harder for the layperson to understand.

Looking at the scientific world through the lens of "genius" is very misleading. There are many many brilliant people and polymaths in the world today, they have just not made it into the textbooks and stamp collections yet. There are many amazing people working today - check out Lincoln Stein, who helped invent CGI programming and bioinformatics while leading in C. elegans molecular genetics, or Jared Diamond, a prize-winning physiologist who "dabbled" in island ecology and anthropology then just happened to write several bestselling history/ecology books.

The problem is not that we have so few geniuses around, it's that we have so damn many that almost nobody gets media focus except for the few shameless self promoters (Craig Venter?).
posted by benzenedream at 11:25 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Steve Wozniak
Bill Gates

As much as I admire these men (especially Wozniak, being one of the most brilliant computer engineers ever), I wouldn't put either of them up with Einstein and Newton, who each altered how we see reality itself.
posted by secret about box at 1:31 AM on November 11, 2008

(Though I would absolutely put Woz up there with Tesla and Edison. I basically have him to thank for my livelihood!)
posted by secret about box at 1:36 AM on November 11, 2008

Q: How come we don't have another Einstein of our era?

A: Because we stopped funding pure research.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:51 AM on November 11, 2008

Wow. Just wow. In my opinion, as a physicist, Stephen Hawking isn't in the same class as Einstein. What's he really done? Exactly.

To answer crazlunatic's original question, I'd have to say that the only scientist of Einstein's caliber in the last hundred or so years was Richard Feynman. To understand the true genius of Feynman, think about he developed Quantum Electrodynamics as a field, much as Einstein developed Relativity.

Seriously, go read his Wikipedia page.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak. Yikes.
posted by kungfujoe at 3:00 AM on November 11, 2008

Another reason that hasn't been touched upon yet it that the No Child Left Behind Act has basically left all advanced and gifted education programs floundering since all the funds are going to get lower level students up to standards. Our entire education system is trending downward to scrape by instead of supporting those kids who are already high achieving. It's too soon to see the repercussions yet but we will soon.

Also, since the 60's it hasn't been "cool" to be really smart or high achieving. The nerd label is applied early and a lot of kids don't like it so they do what they can to avoid it. Society praises mediocrity and we are starting to suffer for it. I just completed a Grad class on Ed Psych and did my term paper on this subject. I have lots of cites if anyone wants them but it must wait. Taking my boy to music class right now. Back later.
posted by pearlybob at 5:55 AM on November 11, 2008

Ed Witten. He has contributed to many areas of pure mathematics and physics. The wikipedia article I linked to skips over some of his original contributions including some work on strange matter. Roger Penrose is another impressive theorist.
posted by aroberge at 6:06 AM on November 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

crazlunatic, you may enjoy reading this exceptional excerpt from James Gleick's Genius (a biography of Feynman). Gleick specifically addresses your question (also known as the "Where are the .400 hitters?" question).
posted by Mapes at 6:41 AM on November 11, 2008

Well I dont know about the others but einstein gave us something that is a now understood to be like a law of nature sort of. I dont think their are any scientists since then that came up with something that has been proven fudnamental yet.

As far as i know a lot of it hasn't been proven yet. (i think the lhc is set to prove or not prove some things though).
posted by majortom1981 at 6:45 AM on November 11, 2008

I think the problem is your starting point. comeone Edison and tesla? they don't belong there at all and are not that well known outside the USA I think.

A better list woudl probably start at Socrates, Plato, Galileo, Da Vinci, Descartes, Newton, etc..
posted by mary8nne at 7:15 AM on November 11, 2008

Whats Einteins law of nature? Relativity is not even understood by 80% of the population!
posted by mary8nne at 7:17 AM on November 11, 2008

In terms of revolutionizing our world, how about Tim Berners-Lee?
posted by mattholomew at 8:11 AM on November 11, 2008

Tesla was a genius, his knowledge of science gave him a deep understanding that allowed him to invent. Edison was less impressive. Edison came up with good inventions through brute force, hard work, and trial and error.

Bill Gates? He was a good businessman, but that's about it. Buying DOS and rebranding it MS-DOS isn't enough to make him the Einstein of our time, IMO.
posted by banished at 8:33 AM on November 11, 2008

I think a fairly good case has been made that the genius of both Einstein and Newton had essential elements we would classify as autistic, and I believe the same with could be done with Turing.

I also think there is a good case-- yet to be made-- that the disease of autism itself has worsened drastically over the last few generations, and that, as a result, the people who would have been our Einsteins and Newtons are sitting in a room somewhere flapping their hands in front of their faces.
posted by jamjam at 9:41 AM on November 11, 2008

Another nominee for a modern genius: Paul Erdős. But again, most of his accomplishments are only appreciable secondhand without an advanced degree. He would be very difficult to brand as a celebrity, and is mostly known outside of math circles due to his eccentricities, which fit into the "ethereal philosopher" stereotype.

I went to visit his grave while in Budapest. It is in a near-abandoned Jewish cemetery and we were the only ones looking for him. Several of the Hungarians I talked to knew of him but none of the other tourists did.
posted by benzenedream at 10:31 AM on November 11, 2008

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