The futility of scientific creativity

There is a problem that has been nagging at me for quite some time, and it’s particularly evident in a book that I’m currently reading (The Innovators ) so I thought now would be a perfect time to try and articulate it. Namely, if I don’t do my research… will someone else? And how long will it take? If the answers are “yes” and “not that long”, then why am I wasting my time?

I bring this up, because after a few fits and starts, I’ve stumbled into an area of research that really interests me. Yet, my first paper as a graduate student was essentially scooped by two different papers published a few months before my own. These papers had vastly different methodologies from one another and myself, but all of our conclusions were nearly identical. I could take solace in the fact that all science should be replicated and that the finding is collectively bolstered by the fact that we all support it, but I don’t and neither should you.

What bothers me is that, as I was writing the paper, I had the realization that I could easily have written it 10 years earlier. My findings didn’t rely on any new innovative experimental techniques or datasets, yet it took someone until now to put these pieces together. And by someone, I of course mean 3 separate research groups scattered across the world who happened to put it all together within the same 6 month window. Disheartening, to say the least. And before you argue that competition fosters creativity, bear in mind that I didn’t even know that I had competitors; so that explanation falls flat.

I don’t care to be the first past the post. It’s a useless pissing contest, if you ask me, to see who can get their multi-year research project published a month before someone else. I quite frankly, don’t want to be in the business of doing research that I think other people are doing (so long as I trust that they are doing it competently). I want to do research that no one else is thinking about, I want to be known for my thoughts and not for my speed. But doesn’t everyone?

Newton and Leibniz developed calculus more or less simultaneously and independently. But would the world be any different if one or the other decided to become a blacksmith instead? Or was it simply that there was an intellectual foundation of the day that laid down an obvious path towards calculus, and we look back after the fact to come up with reasons to lionize the victors?

For a more recent example, I mentioned that I’m reading The Innovators which is about the history of computing. One thing that I’ve learned is how hard it is to pin-down who invented the first “modern computer”. That is, of course, because multiple people developed computers independently, without any prior knowledge of what others were doing. Konrad Zuse working in Germany and John Vincent Atanasoff in Iowa essentially had little to no knowledge of what researchers at Harvard, UPenn, and Bletchley Park in the UK were up to. And yet, they all invented virtually the same components within a few months/years of one another. After hearing how many people independently had nearly the same exact thoughts at nearly the same exact time, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that these advances would not have all occurred in a few years time regardless of the existence of any individual. We’d have calculus without Newton, and we’d have computers without Turing. It doesn’t diminish their accomplishments, okay maybe it does, but I’m really curious to know what innovations that we wouldn’t have without (insert name here). Of course, we’ll never know because we can’t rewind the tape and play history again but it’s a rhetorical question worth asking, especially for scientific researchers because we should all be striving to be that person.

I know that finding an interesting problem is the hands-down hardest part of research. I’m just recently wondering if all interesting problems are obvious products of their historical and cultural moment. Then again, maybe not: Charles Babbage came up with the revolutionary idea for the Analytical Engine (a sort-of precursor computer) essentially out of nowhere. But it also lead precisely nowhere. So maybe true brilliance isn’t rewarded in the sciences, and rather we reward the brilliance that doesn’t stand too far out from the crowd. Because after all, the crowd carries innovations onward. A depressing, cynical, but perhaps true note worth ending on.