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The death of old scientists clears the way for new advances

Veronique Greenwood writes:

New ideas advance in science not just because they are true, but because their opponents die, physicist Max Planck wrote in 1948. He was referring to a fundamental theory that, at the time, provoked a nasty feud, yet today is taught in nearly every high school physics classroom. The belief that science advances one funeral at a time is the kind of folk mythology in which any researcher might indulge in a discouraging moment, says Kevin Zollman, a philosopher of science at Carnegie Mellon University.

“It’s very comforting to imagine there’s some evildoer behind the scenes,” Zollman says wryly, “when your paper gets rejected.”

Older scientists aren’t notably worse at accepting revolutionary ideas compared to younger colleagues, research has found. But a paper published in August in the American Economic Review suggests there may be subtler ways in which the top dogs have a discouraging effect on new entrants. According to the paper, which draws on decades of data on more than 12,000 elite biology researchers, when a superstar scientist dies their field sees a small burst of activity in the form of fresh publications. What’s more, the authors of the new papers, which are more likely than usual to be highly cited, are typically newcomers who have never published in this subfield before.

The results imply that the deaths of important scientists may open up opportunities for fresh ideas, reaffirming Planck’s statement. But they also suggest that science is reassuringly robust; instead of fields getting into a rut, or even falling apart when a star dies, they continue to evolve. [Continue reading…]

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