How can today's wired, multitasking scientists ever compete with the great scientists of the past? One feature of Darwin's work as a scientist was that it proceeded slowly, very, very slowly. He wrote massive groundbreaking books, compiled huge amounts of data on orchids, barnacles, and Galapagos animals, but all over a long period of time. Scientists in Darwin's day had hours to kill on long voyages, took long walks out in the field, and waited while their scientific correspondence leisurely wended its way across oceans or continents.
Even in the first half of the 20th century, great scientists are famous for what they accomplished on long walks, hiking trips, and train rides. Niels Bohr would walk for hours around Copenhagen and come up with groundbreaking ideas, while Werner Heisenberg spent weeks every year hiking in the mountains. Even Richard Feynman, working in our more modern (but still pre-internet) era, insisted on long blocks of time to concentrate; he likened his thought process to building a house of cards, easily toppled by distraction and difficult to put back together.
Does that mean the kind of science we do in our overscheduled, multitasking world will never be the same as it was in the past? Certainly in one sense it won't - earlier generations of scientists had one distinct advantage we don't have today: Servants.
But I don't want servants (and I'd guess that most other people don't either), I just want time free from the instant-response expectations that fill our days. Blog posts have to be quick and spontaneous, or else they are obsolete; if I don't look at the dozens of new science papers published today, they will be buried under two dozen more published tomorrow; if I don't check all those interesting RSS feeds in my browser this morning, I'll be reading only the response to a response to a post tonight; if I don't reply immediately to the dozens of emails I get each day, then people will think I'm disorganized, lazy, or just ignoring them. One of the reasons I hate PloS One (which aims to "accelerate research" - isn't it accelerated enough!?") and the idea of open peer-review is that I'm worried about being overwhelmed by all the online communities professional scientists will expected to be members of, just to stay in the game.
What kind of research is getting done in this kind of world? Surely some really, really great stuff; OK I agree that more good science is being published than ever before. But much of it also follows two trends: big-team science, solving big problems by brute force; and detail-filling science, not especially innovative, but usually useful. Where does this leave the kinds of deep breakthroughs, that in the past have always arisen in the minds of very focused individuals? A new, conceptually difficult and immature field like systems biology, desperately in need of some really good, new ideas, seems to be suffering from this scientific climate.
Then again, maybe not all great scientists of the past needed great periods of isolation to work. Einstein, perhaps the greatest 20th century scientist, wrote four groundbreaking papers, all while having a young kid at home and holding down a full-time day job at the patent office. He was helped in his thinking by conversations with both his wife and his close college buddy, Michele Besso. Maybe if Einstein had email, he would have written five papers.