In 1676, Isaac Newton explained his accomplishments through a simple metaphor. “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he wrote. The image wasn’t original to him, but in using it Newton reinforced a way of thinking about scientific progress that remains popular: We learn about the world though the vision of a few colossal figures.
This idea has a literary corollary: the scientific biography, a genre that dates at least to the early 18th century and is flourishing today. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in biography for “American Prometheus,” their portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, while at least two dozen English-language biographies of Albert Einstein have been published in the past 10 years alone. Recent works like James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” and W. W. Norton’s “Great Discoveries” series, which includes volumes on Copernicus and Darwin, provide compact profiles of major figures, while waves of science writers have followed Dava Sobel, author of the 1995 smash hit “Longitude,” in chronicling lone mavericks whose insights have — supposedly — changed the world. Three centuries after Newton, we’re still learning our science one genius at a time.
Yet the biography exists in a state of tension with contemporary science, which has become increasingly oriented around massive, collaborative research projects. Today’s insights are not so much perceived from the shoulders of giants as glimpsed from a mountain of jointly authored papers announcing results from large labs, and rapidly circulated through journals, conferences and the Internet. So is the end of the traditional science biography in sight? The genre may be a lens magnifying portions of the history of science, but in time it could seem as antique as Galileo’s telescope. At the least, changes in science itself may demand that science biographers adapt or become extinct.