samuel_arbesman's picture
Complexity Scientist; Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital; Author, Overcomplicated
Science = Big Science

Centuries ago, when science was young, it was possible to make contributions to scientific knowledge through simple experiments. You could be a hobbyist or a "gentleman scientist" and discover something fundamental about the world around us.

But in the past several decades, science has gotten bigger. In this era of Big Science, we need large teams of scientists working together to make discoveries in everything from the life sciences to high-energy physics. And we need lots of money to do this. The era of the lone scientist doing small-scale science seems to be over.

And that is often the narrative we hear. When the Higgs boson was found, it wasn't discovered through an elegant experiment using an apparatus developed in a garage. It was found using a massive technological construction and thousands of scientists working together.

So is small-scale science over? While the trends clearly point to the advent of team science, small and clever science—the realm of the tiny budget or the elegant experiment, or sometimes even the hobbyist—is by no means over. To be clear, small science is not necessarily the lone underdog working against the establishment. More often it is simply one or two underfunded scientists doing their best. But it seems that they can still survive even in this modern era of big science. For example, several years ago, a paleontology graduate student made a discovery that cleared a dinosaur of cannibalism charges that began with a very simple observation: by looking at one of the fossil casts on the wall of the American Museum of Natural History's subway station. Or take the scientists who examined the space of possible ways to tie a necktie, and whose research was published in Nature. Little science is still possible.

Though these examples might sound somewhat trivial, in fact, small-scale science can also have a big impact. Peter Mitchell was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in biochemistry conducted at his own small private research institute with only a handful of people. Support for this small lab included funds from his family's money—making Mitchell a modern-day equivalent of the gentleman scientist. Another Nobel Prize was awarded for work on "split brain" patients—those with the connection between their two hemispheres severed—that led to novel insights into the brain's function. Part of this work consisted of experiments that are so simple—though exceedingly clever—that the Nobel Prize website actually has a game just like the original experiments online, where you can play at home.

You can even still do science on the cheap. Several decades ago, Stanley Milgram measured the well-known Six Degrees of Separation using little more than postcards. While science has become bigger since then, in some ways it has become even easier to conduct large-scale science by the scientist who operates at a small scale: due to massive computational advances and widespread data freely available (not to mention easier data collection online), now any scientist can do big science cheaply and in a small and easy way. Technology has allowed research scientists to leverage a tiny budget in astonishing ways. And each of us can now even easily contribute to science as an amateur, through the growing prevalence of citizen science, where the general public can help—often in a small incremental way—to collect data or otherwise help with science. From categorizing galaxies and plankton to figuring out how proteins fold, everyone can now be a part of the scientific process.

And while mathematics might still be the domain of the singular genius, even it has a place for the hobbyist or the amateur. For example, in the mid-1990s, two high school students discovered a novel additional solution to a problem that Euclid posed and solved thousands of years ago, and for which no other method had been found since that time millennia ago. And there is even an entire domain known as recreational mathematics.

Some of these examples might seem to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule of Big Science, but I think they demonstrate something far more optimistic: that small science can flourish, even with all of the trends that show science is getting bigger and bigger. Creative experiments and the right questions are just as important as ample funding and infrastructure, and technology is making this work easier than ever. Little science can still prosper.