Nick Humphrey observed in 1987: "In Two Cultures, C. P. Snow extolled the great discoveries of science as "scientific Shakespeare," but in one way he was fundamentally mistaken. Shakespeare's plays were Shakespeare's plays and no one else's; Scientific discoveries, by contrast, belong — ultimately — to no one in particular."
This may be an exaggeration, but there's something to it. On the one hand, there is an individuality to the contributions of great artists that seems to be not just rare in science, but positively beside the point. The famous priority disputes in science, and the races for one Nobel Prize clincher or another, are ferocious precisely because somebody else could make exactly the contribution you were striving to make — and you won't get points for style if you come in second. These contests have no parallel in the arts, where a different set of goals reigns. The contrast is nicely illustrated by my own home field of philosophy, which uncomfortably straddles the two cultures.
For several years, I have been posing the following choice for my fellow philosophers: if Mephistopheles offered you the following two options, which would you choose?
(A) solve a major philosophical problem so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history) or
(B) write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required reading list for centuries to come.
Many philosophers reluctantly admit that they would have to go for option (B). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. Like composers, poets, novelists, and other creators in the arts, they tend to want their work to be experienced, over and over, by millions (billions, if possible!). But they are also tugged in the direction of the scientists' quest. After all, philosophers are supposed to be trying to get at the truth.
Some scientists aspire to reach large readerships, and to delight the readers they catch, and the best write works of surpassing literary value. Darwin's books come to mind. But the goal of getting it right, of persuading the readers of a discovered truth, still comes first, as we can tell at a glance by comparing Darwin's The Voyage Of The Beagle with Melville's Moby Dick. One can learn a great deal about whales and whaling from Moby Dick, but Melville didn't write it to be an artful and persuasive — user-friendly — compendium of whaling facts.
Bearing in mind the difference between the goals of science and the goals of art, then, here is a question that appropriately parallels the teaser I ask my philosophical colleagues. If Mephistopheles offered you the following two options, which would you choose?
(1) to win the race (and the accompanying Nobel Prize!) for pinning down a discovery that became the basis for a huge expansion of scientific knowledge but that, in retrospect, epitomized Humphrey's epithet, belonging to no one in particular. (Crick and Watson come to mind, of course; there is scant doubt that if they hadn't won the race when they did, Linus Pauling or somebody else would soon have done so.)
(2) to propose a theory so original, so utterly unimagined before your work, that your surname enters the language–but your theory turns out to be dead wrong, though it continues to generate centuries of arguably valuable controversy (I think of Lamarckian theories of evolution, and Cartesian theories of the mind. The jury is still out on Chomskian linguistics. It certainly passes the originality test. Like the victory of the America in the race that gave the America's Cup its name, there was no second anywhere in sight when Chomsky burst on the scene.)
We honor scientists who are wrong in useful ways — recall Wolfgang Pauli's insult about the theorist who "isn't even wrong" — but forced to choose, would you trade being first and right for being original and provocative?