A philosopher of science once told me, “Science is like a big, ornate building. Unless you’re an Einstein or a Newton, all you can do is etch away at a little flourish on the building’s facade – and then you die.”
Though bleak, his thought did speak to a curious truth about the lives of scientists: most scientists toil away at questions that seem relatively inconsequential compared to the questions tackled by individuals like Einstein or Newton. We get siloed into niches and spend our professional lives expanding upon just a tiny corner of human knowledge.
Though this philosopher found it disheartening, this specialization is necessary if we want to understand the universe. Nature is incredibly complicated, and no single human mind on its own is equipped to understand it. Sure, once every few centuries a genius like Einstein might come along and significantly accelerate the process of discovery, but even Einstein built upon centuries of work that came before him. He wouldn’t have been able to derive the theories of special and general relativity if it weren’t for the calculations and measurements of many others. And science continued to progress after him, marching forward bit by bit through the work of thousands of lesser-known researchers.
Unlike the philosopher of science I mentioned, I find this fact – that most individual scientists can only make minor contributions to human knowledge – to be incredibly humbling and beautiful. As a scientist, I do work on very niche questions. But I wouldn’t be able to ask (let alone answer) those questions if it weren’t for the collective work of thousands of scientists who came before me, each of whom toiled away at obscure problems and didn’t stop until they were sure they had robust and satisfactory answers.
For example, brain scientists today depend heavily upon the work of the multitudes of biologists who, over the last century, unraveled the inner workings of cells; we depend on the work of the chemists and physicists whose then-obscure research led to the advent of brain scanners; we depend on the work of mathematicians whose study of graphs gave us the tools to study brain networks; we depend on the work of engineers whose study of communication channels helped us understand neural coding; and we depend on the work of economists whose work in forecasting allowed us to study signal transmission between brain regions. Perhaps most importantly, we depend on each other’s work – we challenge and expand upon one another’s findings, until we slowly reach a consensus as a field and then move on to new problems.
But this isn’t a process that involves just scientists. Almost no basic research would be possible without tax-funded grants, which makes the non-scientific public as important in this collective endeavor as scientists. Each of us contributes to humanity’s understanding of the universe in a small – but beautiful and important – way.
So I’d like to amend the statement made by the philosopher of science I mentioned. As scientists, we don’t spend our lives adding little flourishes to the edifice of human knowledge. Instead, collectively, we build new floors in this edifice, spending our professional lives making sure that these floors are solid and secure. That way, future scientists can build upon what we have discovered. Through this process, humanity will – tentatively yet steadily – continue crawling ever-closer toward an understanding of the cosmos.
Cover image: The Scientists by Rita Greer (Wikimedia Commons)