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BBC Future

Science/Fiction

The myth of the lone genius

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

We like to make heroes, such as Rod Taylor in the 'The Time Machine' (Copyright: Getty)

We like to make heroes, such as Rod Taylor in the 'The Time Machine' (Copyright: Getty)

Genuine scientific progress is usually collaborative even if the nature of fame, and fiction, is to single out individuals, writes Quentin Cooper.

It is sixty years since Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor became Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth the Second. Sixty years in which the planet has changed beyond recognition. As part of the Diamond Jubilee festivities the BBC asked the public to help select the sixty “New Elizabethans” – living or dead, British or not – who have had the most impact on life during her (or possibly Her) reign. Which in effect means fifty-nine since HRH herself is pretty much a shoe-in.

Given all the myriad ways science and technology have left their mark on the last 60 years, it’s a list which you might expect scientists and inventors to dominate. And I’ve no problem thinking of worthy contenders.  Indisputable geniuses like Sidney Stratton, Ned and Philip Brainard, Robert Campbell and Alexander Hartdegen. Don’t know them? More familiar may be Emmett Brown, Caractacus Potts or Eldon Tyrell.

Each is responsible for one or more world-changing inventions and breakthroughs. Unfortunately, as you will have no doubt figured out, each is also fictional.   

Stratton, played by Alec Guinness, devises an indestructible fabric in wonderful Ealing comedy The Man In the White Suit; Brainard with a change of first name invents gravity-defying flying rubber in both The Absent Minded Professor and the Robin Williams remake Flubber; Campbell is Medicine Man Sean Connery curing cancer; and although in HG Wells’ novel and the first film version he has no name, in the most recent remake it’s Alexander Hartdegen who builds The Time Machine.

The time travel – by flying DeLorean – is rather more stylish from Doc Emmett Brown in the Back To The Future trilogy; Caractacus Potts also gets a car to fly and creates whistling confectionery in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; and Eldon Tyrell gives life, and death, to Bladerunner’s replicants.   

‘Nutty professor’

This may seem a long and very male list of characters who have come up with things that, if real, would be ranked among the greatest advances of all time.   That’s because it is.  Well, apart from the “toot sweets” in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Now try to do the same for the individuals behind genuine inventions and breakthroughs. It’s almost impossible.

You might say Watson or Crick for the structure of DNA – but while both did key work they also needed Rosalind Franklin and a host of other supporting characters. There is also far more to DNA than its structure. Or what about Tim Berners Lee who “invented” the World Wide Web?   Undoubtedly “TimBL” was vital to its development but what about his less well lauded partner – Robert Callieau - or the many thousands of others who have left their mark on what it has become? And Ian Wilmut – the man who brought Dolly the Sheep to the world’s attention? Sure enough, the paper that describes just how the world’s first cloned mammal was “created” shows the names of at least four other scientists involved in the research.

It is a problem that can only get worse. Think of the growing number of “big science” projects, from the Human Genome to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). All involve thousands of people working in myriad disciplines. Naming an individual who is single-handedly responsible for the project – and its findings - is an impossible task.

The Nobel Prizes – perhaps the organisation that has done the most to promote the idea of individual triumph – is already under pressure to change its ways. Last year’s prize for dark energy came under fire from the Astronomer Royal – the Queen’s own astronomer - for not accurately reflecting the true number of people who carried out the work. I don’t envy the Nobel Committee faced with plucking out three individuals if - and when - the Higgs Boson is discovered at the LHC.

That is because genuine scientific progress is usually collaborative and collective even if the nature of fame, and fiction, is to single out individuals and hand them all the credit. We like to make heroes, and a century ago stories about dashing, dynamic inventors saving the day, and the world, through their indefatigable ingenuity were so popular they even had their own name – Edisonades, inspired by the famously sweaty Thomas Edison. Such tales peaked in popularity long before EAM Windsor became QE2. Now even in fantasies in which a scientist makes some amazing advance, they are usually portrayed as nutty, absent-minded, eccentric or plain weird.

So it will be interesting to see which scientists, if any, end up being allotted a place among the New Elizabethans.  For all their incalculable influence on life as we now live it, few have changed anything single-handedly, while many who have made a significant difference have achieved little or no public recognition. Unlike their fictional counterparts, the scientists who have transformed our world seldom get starring roles, just an uncredited cameo as part of the crowd.