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A misplaced image of science

Putting in place such a prize reflects a flawed understanding of the way modern science works
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First Published: Sun, Feb 24 2013. 08 39 PM IST
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, left, with venture capitalist Yuri Milner at the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize announcement in San Francisco, California on Wednesday. Photo:  Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, left, with venture capitalist Yuri Milner at the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize announcement in San Francisco, California on Wednesday. Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Yuri Milner jointly established what is, as of now, considered the most lucrative annual prize in the history of science to reward research into curing disease and extending human life. Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook; Brin, who co-founded Google; and Milner, a venture capitalist, have dipped into their immense wealth to sponsor awards worth $3 million each, more than twice the Nobel Prize’s value of $1.1 million. This is separate from Milner’s announcement last year of a prize of similar value for theoretical physicists. Among the first winners of this prize was Indian string theorist Ashoke Sen.
The reason for instating such a prize, the sponsors say, is to attract more youngsters to basic science. While laudable, this reflects a flawed understanding of the way modern science works. When Alfred Nobel decided on his eponymous prizes, much of the major breakthroughs in physics, chemistry and medicine relied almost exclusively on great breakthroughs in theoretical sciences.
At that time, it was relatively easy to attribute big ideas to one single person—ranging from Albert Einstein for the photoelectric effect to Niels Bohr for his idea of atomic orbits.
Modern science, however, is almost entirely collaborative. No longer is it possible for an idea that originates in one mind to be feted. This is because every idea needs testing and verification, often using prohibitively expensive equipment and highly imaginative teams of researchers—many times, spread across several continents.
While the Nobel Prize recognizes this trait of science and, increasingly, awards these experimentalists, the newly announced prizes still reflect a hankering for the mythical image of a lone genius conceiving and pushing an unconventional idea against an established paradigm. The philanthropists who have instituted these prizes themselves have become wealthy as their firms have broken traditional barriers of geography. And it would’ve been fitting to put in place rewards for organizations or institutions that have collectively pushed the boundaries of science using teamwork. This is all the more important given that genius and bright minds are almost equally distributed across the world but funds and research access aren’t. The wunderkinds may have missed a great opportunity to set this imbalance aright.
Is scientific discovery by single, talented, scientist a myth? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Feb 24 2013. 08 39 PM IST
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