An article titled “Individualism: The legacy of great physicists,” by Ricardo Heras. crossed my various social media feeds a half-dozen times on Tuesday, so I finally broke down and read it, and I’m puzzled. The argument is very straightforward– single-author publications used to be common, now they’re not, this might indicate a lack of truly independent work, that would be bad– but a lot of it is at odds with my reading of the relevant history.
The most jarring thing about the article is the “Individualistic Team” graphic above, including a bunch of pictures of famous physicists who are supposed to have been great individualists: Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac, Henri Poincaré, Lev Landau, and Richard Feynman. But almost half of that list– Fermi, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger– were part of an extremely active and closely connected community of physicists working on the development of quantum theory in the 1920′s and 1930′s. Reading the history of the period, it’s a little amazing that they managed to accomplish as much as they did, given all the time they spent writing letters to each other.
Einstein arguably belongs in there as well, though he wasn’t that big a part of the quantum correspondence after about 1930 (he and Schrödinger both drifted away because of philosophical problems with the theory). Dirac worked at the same time as that community– he worked briefly with Bohr, and went on a world lecture tour with Heisenberg– but hardly ever spoke, so maybe you could count him as not really part of it. Planck and Poincaré really belong (at least) a generation earlier, so I have less of a sense of where they fit in the community of their time. Feynman was a generation later, but an important and engaged part of the post-war physics community. Landau was both a bit later and on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, so I don’t know that much about him.
In terms of style, you could probably argue that Feynman and Dirac were true individualists, in that they did their own thing with little obvious input from others. I don’t think there’s really any way to call Bohr a true individualist in that sense, though– he was always working with others, and arguably his most important role was as a catalyst bringing others together to argue about foundational issues. Heisenberg worked closely with Bohr during the pivotal period, and at other times with Pauli. Fermi worked with Pauli and a bunch of others. Even Einstein, famously a patent clerk when he did his key work, relied heavily on discussions with others, most importantly Michele Besso and Marcel Grossmann, for shaping and refining his ideas.
But if these people all worked together, why were there so many single-author papers in the past, and so few now? The answer is that standards have changed. This is most clear in one of the references Heras cites, a Physics Today piece by Phillip Wyatt from 2012, who writes
It has long been evident that some professors established groups of graduate students whose main activities were often focused on publishing research results. Authorship of such articles expanded to include all members of the group despite only the peripheral or negligible contributions by some, historically referenced in an acknowledgements section.
I agree with the facts, but not the get-offa-my-lawn spin: reading historical accounts and old papers makes clear that while old papers may have had only a single name at the top, the work was never done alone. The classic single-author experimental papers are chock full of footnotes and acknowledgement sections thanking this technician or that one for invaluable assistance in making the crucial parts and recording the crucial data. As recently as 1960, that Monte Carlo simulation thesis I blogged includes a thank-you to “M. S. Ketchum” for, basically, typing his program in and debugging it.
I suppose you could concoct some standard by which the contributions of those people were “peripheral or negligible,” but I suspect their relegating to acknowledgements and footnotes had a lot more to do with barriers of class, race, and gender (M. S. Ketchum is a “she” later in the paragraph explaining her contribution) than genuine merit. The extension of full authorship to those people strikes me less as a lowering of standards than a righting of wrongs.
The same sort of thing happens a bit on the theory side. Some accounts of classic work make it sound like there was a level of give-and-take that today would rate more than a “the author thanks Prof. Firstname Lastname for helpful discussion” note at the end. We’ve gotten more honest about acknowledging the inherently collaborative nature of science, and that’s a good thing.
There are problems with the way papers are generated and published these days, to be sure, starting with the fact that there’s just so much of it. But I don’t think that the trend toward giving (slightly more) credit to everyone who contributes to the progress of science reflects a genuine problem with the way things are done.