Apr. 2, 2009 Is today's academic and corporate culture stifling science's risk-takers and stopping disruptive, revolutionary science from coming to the fore? In April's Physics World the science writer Mark Buchanan looks at those who have shifted scientific paradigms and asks what we can do to make sure that those who have the potential to change our outlook on the world also have the opportunity to do so.
When Max Planck accidentally discovered quantum theory, he kick-started the most significant scientific revolution of the 20th century; his colleague, Wilhelm Röntgen's experiments with cathode rays led inadvertently to the discovery of X-rays, which ultimately revolutionised modern medical practice; and US physicists at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, detected cosmic wave background radiation -- the echo of the Big Bang -- when trying to get rid of the annoying noise being picked up by their microwave receiver.
Would today's physicists, plagued by the publish-or-perish ethic, have the same freedom to explore their findings?
Buchanan offers a selection of different perspectives in the article. He looks, for example, at suggestions that scientists themselves could take a financial risk in speculative research depending on whether they do or do not think it will pay off, as well as proposals - through, say, 10-year fellowships - that allow scientists to pursue really "hard", long-standing problems without the pressure for rapid results.
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