The development of human understanding has not been balanced. Since time immemorial, it has depended on many objective and subjective factors. This unevenness is not merely chronological. Development also differed from region to region in a single era of history. Moreover, in a single region and a single era there may be great differences in the support of disciplines, teams, prominent figures. The title of the congress therefore features the terms “dwarfs” and “giants”, which symbolise this difference.
We can find a number of areas in which we, as science historians, use both terms figuratively. In what particular sense? We generally use these terms to refer to entities that stand out for their unusual size, i.e. entities that are visibly bigger than one might expect, or, on the other hand, considerably smaller.
Giants and dwarfs amongst scientific figures
First of all, we need to ask what are the criteria for the size of a scientific figure? Have they always been the same? To what extent do they relate to the criteria used today to evaluate science at the global or national levels? When classifying a particular scientist as a “giant”, does a historian make the decision based on that person’s scientific contribution, or rather how that individual was perceived and rated by his or her peers? Are the size, importance and respect of such figures also proof of their unity of status (e.g. scientific titles, membership of societies of excellence, receipt of national and international awards or awards within their field, etc.)?
Success in science has always also been bolstered by a person’s social status. The size of a scientific figure is not only important for his or her specialisation. The nimbus of scientific size may also be reflected in culture and politics, in which the given figures are celebrated, become the guarantors for various schemes or are directly involved in politics. Nobel Prize winners regularly also become important arbiters in international relations or efforts to bring about peace and humanity. A similar role is played by successful scientists on the national level, too. Another phenomenon worthy of note is the occasional non-critical heroisation and idealisation of these figures, a fact which is often associated with their biographies, so popularised in the media.
To what extent is the success of prominent figures in international or national science, technology and medicine the result of their exceptional gifts, or their ability to resolve key scientific questions or initiate research whose importance may span several generations? Although many female and male scientists never became world-famous, they still made a significant contribution to the science and culture of their countries, ethnic groups or regions. Of particular benefit are comparative studies, which aim to compare the contributions of prominent figures in various national or regional units.
The method of investigating a prominent figure depends primarily on the sources available for that particular person or period in history. The basic axis of research in this field is still undoubtedly the biographical method, in which the researcher unravels the scientist’s personal and social components that enable that person to stand out in science and evaluates their individual contribution. How can shedding light on the contributions made by prominent scientists also help in the rigorous application of the findings of the sociology of science, epistemology or various prosopographical methods? Does the use of comparative and statistical methods not blur the unique interpretation of a scientist who has benefited the development of science? Or, on the other hand, do these approaches help to better document the uniqueness of each individuality?
There are numerous factors that determine the growth or stagnation of a scientific figure. How is it possible that two scientists of the same age and with the same education can have different paths: one becomes world renowned, while the other remains forgotten in some second-rate laboratory? What are the personality traits that help to achieve great success? To what extent does chance play a role in furthering one’s career in the world of science? To what extent is a scientist’s career predetermined by the topic that scientist has opted to pursue? Is the choice of a topic considered to be “progressive” a possible (or even necessary) prerequisite for worldwide success, or can it also be seen in focusing on a seemingly regional theme (e.g. “rock-inhabiting cyanoprokaryotes from South Bohemia”)?
The shaping of a scientific figure is significantly conditioned by the social and political environment in which they live. To what extent is a scientist’s future professional career predetermined by the social status of the family he or she comes from? Does the family of a future top scientist merely cultivate their education and way of perceiving things in childhood, or also prepare them through their own social contexts? To what extent could the importance of great scientists be intentionally overlooked or completely eliminated through, amongst other things, ideological or personal persecution? How is the usual career growth distorted in countries and regions where society is run on an authoritarian or totalitarian basis? How can one distinguish the true great figures in science from mere media stars and from scientists who are political protégés declared great solely for political or ideological reasons?
Giants Rise on the Shoulders of Dwarfs. However, smallness – or rather historical omission – may also result from teamwork, for example, so typical of the modern day, which is based on major projects that require the subordination and coordination of management, and thus the sharing of results. Without the humble and flawless work of tens of thousands of scientists patiently repeating the same experiment or test in a laboratory for perhaps thirty years of their professional lives, it would often not be possible to spawn the professional seed that will eventually allow one of them to make a great discovery, making their name shine like a star in the heavens of science.
Ethical misconduct should be one of the defining attributes of a dwarf in science. Has that always been the case? In terms of the ethics of scientific work, we may speak of smallness particularly in cases where the results of research have been falsified for a person’s own benefit or professional renown. This is also related to the problem of plagiarism and the theft of results, the publication of the results of professional work in “predator” journals, the deliberate exaggeration of professional results in media aimed at the general public, etc. It would also be worth focusing on the topic of social response and the budgetary impact of various scandals and blame associated with the world of science.
Giants and dwarfs amongst scientific and research institutions
First of all, as regards the size of scientific workplaces, we may compare extremely small research institutes with high-capacity research enterprises. Does the concept of giants and dwarfs among institutions always have to involve this superficial question of the size of a research centre? The contrasts between small modest scientific institutes and high-capacity research enterprises were escalated even further after the Second World War, as a result of the extensive scientific research involved in projects generally funded by the national government or a group of governments (Big Science). Has this always been the case? At the one end of the size scale are small workplaces staffed by just a few people, such as university institutes specialising in researching and teaching uncommon languages, while at the other end there are the true giants, such as the international CERN institute based in Switzerland, specialising in nuclear research, which employs around 10 000 researchers and whose budget is close to a billion euros.
Throughout history, the state of science in a given country or region has always been strongly dependent on the relationship between high-capacity research centres and politics and the economy. It is essential to explore a whole range of forces that, acting in unison, comprise the crucial prerequisites of that institutional “greatness” and “smallness”: financial affairs, staffing policy, instrumentation and laboratory facilities, libraries, etc. It is not only the instrumentation history that gives rise to questions concerning interactions with period political structures and figures, whose decisions often have a greater impact on the focus of research than we are willing to admit or that might at first seem apparent.
However, the giant size of a research institute does not in itself guarantee the quality or social utility value of the results it achieves, or of its dynamic development. After all, in the world of science even small departments may be “pikes in the pond”, i.e. progressive groups promoting new trends. To what extent does an institute’s size relate to its anticipated and real scientific benefit? And to what extent is that size given by the other expected tasks in the field of education and the popularisation of science, ideological influence on the public, cooperation with the technical and manufacturing sectors or research for military purposes?
The increase in gigantic scientific institutes also enhances the contrast between the theoretical disciplines, in which the researcher – figuratively speaking – needs nothing more than a pen and an old envelope, and giant research, experimental or semi-manufacturing operations. Their size, staffing and financial demands increase exponentially. Some of the biggest and most expensive instruments are used by those who study space or focus on nuclear or medical research, yet demand is also increasing for infrastructure and computer hardware in fields such as the social sciences and humanitarian disciplines.
Giants and dwarfs amongst regions and nations cultivating science and research
The bulk of research operations and the acquisition of the majority of new scientifically-relevant findings are generally concentrated in just a few countries, which may be referred to as scientific superpowers. These are approached for enlightenment and support by scientific communities from other countries, which are often also successful in conducting research and in its applications, but generally in a certain limited, sometimes even highly-specialised segment. Has this always been the case?
At the other end of the scale we have countries that satisfy themselves with passively taking science results from elsewhere. The reasons for this passivity may be highly diverse – objective and subjective.
A superpower in science and research is not necessarily the same as a superpower as we might understand the term within the framework of international politics and the global economy. The general rule tends to be that major world powers are usually the main leaders and driving forces in research. However, we can also find examples where a relatively smaller national culture has managed to make its name amongst research superpowers. An important role in achieving success is played by awareness of the importance of science and research for a country’s own economic and cultural growth. The interaction between the world of politics and the world of science is ambiguous and takes on a series of forms. It is only in truly very formal terms that it signals the shift of the main centres of innovation and education during the course of human history (in ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome, so far in modern history particularly England, France and later also Germany, in the 20th century more and more markedly the US and, for a time, also Russia).
This group of topics also includes the question of the language of science. After the fall of the universal scholarly language, as Latin was at the end of antiquity and in the Middle Ages, national languages assumed the role of communication tools in science. In the case of large scientific superpowers, their national languages have taken on this task in a mostly uncomplicated manner, as the scientific findings obtained may be conveyed to experts in the same language as to the general public (albeit using different genres and stylistics). With small nations, however, a linguistic dualism generally arises: while the national society wants science-related communication to be in its native language, which should also be cultivated so as to demonstrate its cultural awareness, scientists and researchers themselves have striven – sometimes in the face of public opposition – to communicate in the language of a particular scientific superpower, to enable them to join in the professional discourse in their field.
All periods of history are characterised by scientific peregrination to important centres of research. When scientist leave their home country to work in these main centres it is not generally well received in their countries of origin, being referred to as a brain drain. Their departure has been generally motivated by economic or political reasons. Has this always been the case, everywhere?
“Giants” and “dwarfs” as subjects of research
”Giants and dwarfs” in their original form of larger-than-life mythical beings have been studied by a number of philosophical, literary-scientific and artistic disciplines. However, the situation has changed over time. Modern-day research has been influenced ever more by an anthropological view of the world and the emergence of natural science methods.
Scientific terminology uses these terms in a number of disciplines. “Giants” and “dwarfs” are also regularly the focus of interest for a number of exact disciplines, such as astronomy (giant and dwarf stars, red dwarfs etc.). Their metaphorical use in the terminology of those disciplines brings us to the complex issue of transformations in scientific terminology. In particular, the question arises as to what extent the pursuit of exactness alternates with the need for imagery in their development.
In the background, however, lies another important question relating to what inspires scientific work: to what extent and under what circumstances does it involve references to ancient myths and inherited ideas? Scientific research is a creative activity. As such, it is truly hermetically separated from the world of fantasy and the magic of fairy tales, or on the contrary, is this an area from where it consciously or intuitively draws inspiration for understanding the objects of its research or for its practices and methods?
Throughout the history of science, individuals whose size differs from the norm in the animal kingdom have been the focus of attention for a series of experts, from palaeontologists and morphologists through doctors to psychologists and psychiatrists. In particular, they took account of the question of to what extent their abnormal size proved an advantage or disadvantage in everyday life, in the rate of illness and disease and, ultimately, in the Darwinian struggle for survival. This is linked to a number of additional questions: How is normality actually formulated in the individual scientific disciplines and are significant deviations from the norm associated with deformity or deviation?
Individuals being different from the norm have always attracted a great deal of interest and this fact has sometimes led to scandal or abuse. Moreover, the scientific and medical research of such individuals sometimes tends to be associated with the idea that they are abnormal or worthless, with efforts being made to eliminate them (let us bear in mind the misuse of medical research in the Nazi concentration camps). The transformations undergone by scientific and medical ethics in the distant and more recent past also comprise an important topic.
Petr Svobodný, Chair of the LOC
Milada Sekyrková, Scientific Secretary of the LOC