Who will be the next Einstein?
Throughout human history, the progress of science has been built brick by brick. New observations and insights are slowly added to construct a framework of scientific knowledge. As Isaac Newton said, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
However, occasionally there is an exceptional person who completely rethinks the traditional scientific approach. For example, Albert Einstein rewrote the rules of Newtonian mechanics and the idea that space and time are separate and unchangeable. His theory of General Relativity sparked a scientific revolution that completely changed our perception of the universe.
But who will be next? There are still many unsolved mysteries in science that may just need that brilliant flash of insight. To answer this question, first we need to understand how scientific revolutions come about.
How do scientific revolutions happen?
When we talk about a scientific revolution, we don’t just mean an important discovery, but an idea that leads to a ‘paradigm shift’ – a new approach to our way of thinking. This phrase was coined by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. These paradigm shifts vastly change how we perceive the world, and transform the conventional scientific outlook.
Anomalies and crises
One thing that all these discoveries have in common is the way in which they are brought about. In each case, there is an anomaly; some observation that couldn’t be explained within the existing scientific framework. As Kuhn wrote, at some point “anomalies become intractable. No amount of tinkering will fit them into established science.” Such a crisis in a scientific theory usually leads to a rethink of fundamental assumptions.
Here are a few examples.
- Nicolaus Copernicus
In Copernicus’ time, the conventional wisdom was that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, with all the planets and stars revolving around it. But as astronomical observations became more and more precise, this ‘geocentric’ theory began to show cracks which needed to be addressed with increasingly elaborate modifications. These ad hoc adjustments to the theory became so complicated that Copernicus felt a fundamental change was needed. He proposed that the Earth may not in fact be the centre of the universe, but instead that it revolved around the Sun. His theory didn’t give more accurate predictions, and so was not immediately accepted. But it was a more mathematically and geometrically appealing approach, and with later contributions from Kepler and Galileo, it eventually gained widespread support.
- Charles Darwin
Before Darwin’s theory of evolution, the prevalent explanation for the origin of species was creationism, which proposed that all creatures were created instantaneously and didn’t change afterwards. However, by the 1830s evidence was mounting against this theory, and it was modified to include multiple creation events. In fact, some people proposed theories of evolution before Darwin, but none could convincingly explain why it happened. Darwin sought to resolve this problem, and collected his own observations on the differences in species around the world. Based on his collected data, he theorised that animals adapted to their own environments in a process he called ‘natural selection’. This would lead to physical changes in species over long periods of time, explaining the process of evolution. Darwin’s theory of natural selection required a radical change of perspective about the origin of humans. It was highly controversial, especially in the religious community, and only became widely accepted well into the 20th century.
- Albert Einstein
Einstein’s famous theory of relativity originated from the discoveries of a physicist called James Maxwell, who suggested that the speed of light should be a constant. But constant with respect to what? This was at odds with the traditional Newtonian concept of motion. Many thought that there must be a mysterious ‘aether’ permeating the universe through which light travelled. But later experiments showed this wasn’t the case. Maxwell’s discovery was irreconcilable with the existing scientific framework. To resolve this problem, Einstein proposed that the speed of light is constant with respect to every observer; a radical idea with fundamental consequences for the nature of space and time. His theory was eventually proven with later experiments, causing a profound shift in our view of how the universe works.
Who will spark the next scientific revolution?
If we look at each of these examples from history, we can find some similarities between the people who made such significant discoveries. As Kuhn wrote, “almost always [they] who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have either been very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change”. Both Einstein and Darwin were in their 20s when their made their first great discoveries. Copernicus was older, but was an outsider in the field of astronomy, with a breadth of knowledge from other fields. Einstein too, was not a professional physicist when he conceived his theory of relativity, but was working as a patent clerk.
History has shown that people who are young or new to their field are less committed to the existing paradigm, and more inclined to introduce original ideas. So don’t worry if you’re new to your research field, your fresh perspective could mean the next Einstein is you!