Sometimes Scientists Just Need to Be Left Alone

Proponents for alone time—Isaac Newton, included—think silence can be a precondition for a great breakthrough

Photo: Tholme

Some scientists are crying foul on today's world of interdisciplinary research, Twitter and blogging. Group interactions and involvement, they say, are overrated. 

Felicity Mellor, a researcher at Imperial College London, runs a group called Silences of Science, which promotes "constructive pauses" and "strategic delays" in scientific collaboration and communication. Mellor argues that scientific progress requires less tweeting and more thinking, Science 2.0 reports, and that, when science was a much more lonely pursuit, it was that isolation that produced some of the world's most significant breakthroughs.

Here's Science 2.0 with some examples: 

Peter Higgs, for example, recently claimed that he would not have been able to complete his Nobel-prize-winning work in the current research environment, stating that the peace and quiet he was granted in the 1960s is no longer possible.

Sir Isaac Newton, in particular, was a proponent of isolated working, shutting himself away in his rooms, publishing reluctantly and restricting his audience to only those he thought capable of appreciating his work. It was only after much persuasion that he eventually agreed to his Principia being published in full.

Einstein, Cavendish, Heisenberg and Dirac were other isolation-loving researchers, Science 2.0 continues. 

It's not that researchers should bolt themselves in their labs and never interact with the outside world, Mellor says. But there should be a productive balance between outreach, collaboration, productive thinking and work time. "Enforced interaction," she says, does not seem to be the solution. "Communication, yes, but on the physicist's own terms, in that manner that suits each individual best," Mellor says.