The Scientist “Star” system

Saw a very good piece on 60 minutes last Sunday on Dr. Bob Ballard, underwater explorer, best known for his discovery of the Titanic.

If you want to read as opposed to watch, the transcripts are here (part 1 and part 2). The piece is worth watching in its entirety but a couple of things really caught my eye.

  1. While he is best known for finding the Titanic, Dr. Ballard regards his greatest triumph as the discovery of giant tube worms at 8,000 feet underwater that thrive in total darkness on hydrogen sulfide.
  2. and to the point of this entry – he was very articulate in describing the ‘star’ system in science.He also acknowledged it doesn’t hurt to be known as the guy who found the Titanic, but he said that comes with baggage. “Science is a ‘we,’ not an ‘I.’ It truly is. I didn’t do anything. We did a lot of things. But in our system, in America, we have this star-based system. Star athletes, star news people, star politicians. And stars are ‘I.’ And the academic world is really, honestly a ‘we.’”

The success of folks like Dr. Ballard , Richard Dawkins, Steve Jobs or Barak Obama is based on the endeavors of many. While acknowledging that they didn’t accomplish everything alone (or as Isaac Newton said 400 years ago – “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”) we tend to focus on one person as the smartest guy/gal in the room and totally ignore everyone else.

One wonders in this age of instant collaboration including social networks with their promise of the wisdom of the crowds what will happen to tomorrow’s stars – will they be original thinkers or the best at harnessing the thoughts of others? Who knows?

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