How many scientists does it take to make a discovery?

The era of the lone genius, as epitomised by Albert Einstein, has long gone

Discoveries are more likely to be the work of teams which, as in the case of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), may number hundreds, if not thousands.

There is strength in a diversity of approaches and trying to tackle a problem from a single viewpoint, or discipline, today may well be insufficient to achieve the necessary breakthrough. I believe the age of the lone hero(ine) scientist is past. The challenges we face are so multi-faceted and vast that no single mind can encompass all that is needed.

I can hear the alert reader asking, “But what about the Higgs Boson? That was dreamed up by a single man: Peter Higgs.” Well, no. There were several theorists all working on this problem simultaneously (this was 50 years ago). It wasn’t feasible to name the particle after all of them, but that is not to say they didn’t all make serious contributions.

Peter Higgs himself has emphasized this.

This is a problem that is likely to cause the Nobel Prize Committee a headache when it comes to working out which of them are to win the prize; the rules restrict it to a maximum of three individuals.

This has been a problem for a long time, e.g. there is good reason to think that Freeman Dyson should have received a share of the
1965 Nobel Prize. More recently, some physicists have thought that Nicola Cabibbo should have received a share of the
the 2008 Prize.

But it’s not just theorists who contributed to the “discovery” of the Higgs Boson. None of them would be in the running for the prize if it weren’t for the multi-disciplinary, international teams that built the LHC.

At this point we are talking about a cast of thousands. At the Higgs announcements
on July 4, the speakers for both the ATLAS and CMS experiments emphasized the teamwork that was behind their conclusions.

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