The Death of a Famous Scientist Breathes New Life Into Their Field

"There is nothing nefarious about this."

Unsplash / Samuel Zeller

When a scientific figure dies, the world mourns the loss of a pivotal thinker. But a morbid study published in the August issue of the American Economic Review points to one strange effect that accompanies the loss of a scientific star: The gears of scientific progress seem to start churning.

This paper, aptly titled “Does Science Advance one Funeral at a Time?” shows that once a prominent scientist is no longer around, the number of papers published by “newcomers” increases. These semantics of paper publishing speak to a larger trend: The field tends to progress forward in new ways, perhaps previously unconsidered ones.

The paper, whose title is a reference to a Max Planck quote, is the continuation of an ongoing investigation that’s appeared in economics publications several times since 2015. It used a dataset of 452 “star” scientists who died prematurely to demonstrate how their loss impacted the fields to which they had dedicated their careers.

"We are NOT saying that stars are bad for science."

Study co-author Joshua Graff Zivin, Ph.D., tells Inverse that he wants to make one thing clear about this research, though.

“We are NOT saying that stars are bad for science. By definition, they are very good for science,” he explains. And examples of luminaries who have done immense amounts of good for the world abound: like Stephen Hawking who discovered Hawking radiation, or Jonas Salk, one of the earliest developers of the Polio vaccine.

Instead, this paper shows that when someone leaves behind big shoes to fill, there are many newcomers with fresh ideas who emerge to fill them. And those ideas often tend to take hold very quickly.

"Stars" like Stephen Hawking help set the agenda for scientific fields, but once they're not around anymore, this analysis showed that newcomers quickly begin to take their places. 

Flickr / x-ray delta one

“When the star dies, new folks enter, some of those will go on to be stars, who will likely also become arbiters of taste in the field, until they pass and a new set of entrants arrive,” adds Graff Zivin.

What Happens After the “Loss of a Luminary?”

The death of another human being is a tragedy. But this study takes a highly non-sentimental approach to that loss. That approach may feel morbid, but it was revealing. The loss of a luminary ripples through the scientific literature, and newcomers tend to benefit from this.

As the authors note in the paper, it wasn’t obvious from the start that the loss of a star scientist would actually cause newer scientists to emerge into the field. Many of these luminaries get to “set the intellectual agenda” of their fields, as lead study author, Pierre Azoulay, Ph.D., a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, added in a release. The loss of that direction could have resulted in stagnation, or at least a momentary pause.

"There is nothing nefarious about this. It is simply part of the natural life cycle of science.”

To illuminate what actually happens when a notable scientist dies, the team worked with a database of “stars” that had been built over 10 years. To qualify as a star scientist, someone had to be highly funded, highly cited throughout scientific papers, hold a number of patents, or be a member of the National Academy of Sciences or the National Academy of Medicine. Of that sample, 452 scientists died “prematurely,” and when that happened, the team noted that two things happened.

Non collaborators aka newcomers tend to publish more after a pivotal figure dies. 

National Bureau of Economic Research 

Firstly, the amount of papers that cited the stars’ collaborators tanked — down by about 20.7 percent. But that was accompanied by an 8.6 percent increase in papers from newer contributors. That “surge” is important because these newer scientists also tend to cite newer work in their papers, thus drawing upon fresh ideas, explains Graff Zivin.

Interestingly, those new ideas often tend to take hold and become powerful in their own right.

“Newcomers write papers that are influential in the field (as proxied by citations) so it does appear that they help to advance the field in the wake of the star’s death,” says Graff Zivin.

What Stops the Newcomers in the First Place?

These authors make it clear that old-timers probably aren’t acting in bad faith. There are plenty of mentors who encourage new scientists to break into a field. But their research just illuminates how something as heady as “scientific progress” can be governed by something very tangible — human social life.

To explain their results, the authors suggest that the luminary’s star power might deter newcomers — they note that the “very prospect of challenging a luminary in the field serves as a deterrent for entry by outsiders.” But on the other hand, there is some fear that those new ideas may not go over well well either, adds Graff Zivin.

“The concern is only that once they are firmly entrenched at the top, they seem to be a bit too dismissive of ideas that fit squarely in their vision of the field. There is nothing nefarious about this. It is simply part of the natural life cycle of science,” he says.

The point of an analysis like this isn’t to cast judgment on people who have dedicated their lives to a certain field and risen to the top of it. Instead, as the authors note, it simply highlights one admittedly weird way that new ideas shift over time as one generation exits and a new one takes its place.

Abstract: We examine how the premature death of eminent life scientists alters the vitality of their fields. While the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases after the death of a star scientist, the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases markedly. This surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited. While outsiders appear reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive, the loss of a luminary provides an opportunity for fields to evolve in new directions that advance the frontier of knowledge.