An expanded version of these remarks originally appeared in Nature Medicine.This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a highly influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by the physicist Thomas Kuhn (1). This book introduced the world to "paradigms" and "paradigm shifts" — two of the most misused, overused, and abused words in the world today.
Normal science, in Kuhn's view, is essentially a mopping-up operation. This view would not be popular with the Geneva high-energy physicists who believe that their discovery of the Higgs particle is paradigm-shifting — even though, in the Kuhnian sense, it is a prime example of normal science operating within the existing paradigm of the Standard Model of particle physics. Had no Higgs been found, this would have been a paradigm-shifting anomaly worthy of a media celebration — not one showing the highfalutin Geneva physicists hugging each other, but one showing them tossing their mops and licking their chops.
Speaking of anomalies, there are several that surround Thomas Kuhn himself. Ironically, he produced his own paradigm shift by debunking the prevailing paradigm of scientific advancement. How did a scientist who was passed over for tenure at Harvard write one of the great books of the last 50 years? Since its publication in 1962, Structure has sold 1.5 million copies in 16 languages, is still required reading in courses in the philosophy of science, and is cited more often than the classic works of Sigmund Freud, Noam Chomsky, and James Watson. Its success is even more surprising when one takes a look at Structure's first review published in Scientific American in 1962. The last sentence reads: "It is much ado about very little." Such skepticism is the true test of a paradigm shift.
Structure was a success because of the clever way in which Kuhn summarized his theory with two sexy catchwords. In the last 10 years, paradigms have pervaded every aspect of our culture. Today, you can purchase audio and video equipment from Paradigm Electronics in Canada; you can buy bonds and stocks from Paradigm Financial Partners in the UK; you can solve your human resource problems from Paradigm Shift Consulting Service, Ltd. in India; and — most provocative of all — you can read a Paul Krugman op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled "The Ponzi Paradigm."
To biologists, it is puzzling that Kuhn failed to mention the two greatest paradigm shifts in the biological sciences — Darwinism and Mendelism. The most likely explanation is that Kuhn was totally focused on physics, which in the 1950s and 1960s was top scientific dog.
It is ironic that the year in which Structure appeared — 1962 — was the same year in which Nobel Prizes were awarded to the scientists who obtained first molecular structures of DNA and protein — to Watson and Crick in Physiology or Medicine and Perutz and Kendrew in Chemistry. If ever a scientific field were on the verge of a paradigm shift, it was biology in 1962. The genetic code had just been cracked by Nirenberg, and recombinant DNA and gene cloning were just around the corner. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, "On or about December 10, 1962, the world of biology changed."
What was Kuhn's view on paradigm shifts in the arts? He believed that great works of art retain their value throughout time even in the face of revolutionary changes in style. To quote Kuhn, "Picasso's success has not relegated Rembrandt's paintings to the storage vaults of art museums" (2). So what should we call Picasso's and Braque's transition from impressionism to cubism or Jackson Pollock's and Willem de Kooning's transition from realism to abstract expressionism? If they're not paradigm shifts, given the cutthroat competitive nature of the art world, what about paradigm rifts? Or paradigm tiffs?
Although Kuhn's paradigm model may not be strictly relevant to the arts, it is the artists who have shed light on a key question never answered by Kuhn: Where do the daring ideas in science that bring on paradigm shifts come from? Some ideas, according to the American artist James Rosenquist, arise explosively in a light-bulb moment in the middle of the night. Rosenquist is one of our most creative contemporary artists. Together with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, he was one of the three founding members of the Pop Art movement in the 1960s. One of his signature paintings of 1960, entitled President-Elect, a charismatic President John F. Kennedy is shown juxtaposed with a woman's hand holding a piece of devil's food cake and a 1960 Pontiac. The devil's food cake is a stand-in for a tempting female, and the car is prophetic, foreshadowing by three years JFK's death in a motorcade.
Now that Rosenquist is approaching 80 years of age, his artistic paradigm has shifted — from visualizing popular culture to visualizing the philosophy of ideas. According to Rosenquist, "A good idea that spurs you on to do something should have pictorial power. After all, what does a great idea look like?" (3).
So in 2007, Rosenquist created a series of sculptures and paintings that deal with the origin of ideas (3). Fig. 1a shows a sculpture entitled Idea in Middle of the Night. The pencils that pierce the light bulb symbolize the hands of a clock and the writing down of an idea that pops into your head in the middle of the night. Fig. 1b shows a painting entitled Idea, 2:50 A.M. The bulb is the light that goes off suddenly in your mind in the wee hours of the night like an intellectual alarm clock. The bulb is also the light that you need to write down your fleeting inspiration before it fades away.
In the painting of Fig. 1c, entitled Idea 3:50 A.M., the light bulb represents the beginning of an idea that explodes in so many different directions that it becomes an abstract version of itself and ultimately develops into something completely new — like a paradigm shift.
Not all artists agree that a great idea arises in an explosive moment. The Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone tells us that a great idea forms in a very slow and gradual process of aggregation and crystallization, such as that which occurs in the formation of a rock.
Penone is widely regarded as one of Italy's leading contemporary artists. He is best known for his outside environmental installations in which trees sculpted out of wood or bronze are integrated with nature in a thematic way. Penone's most recent installation was commissioned as the centerpiece for this year's Documenta exhibition of contemporary art, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany (4).
Penone's piece in Fig. 2, entitled Ideas of Stone (Idee di pietra), consists of a bronze structure of a large nut tree (30 feet tall) with a stone lodged high in its branches. The stone is a type of granite rock that contains billions of crystals of silicate minerals that were formed over many years by the natural processes of weathering and erosion. Penone purposely selected a stone that has the shape of a human brain, thus producing a brain of billions of silicate crystals, each crystal possessing a precise geometry that symbolizes order and logic like great thoughts produced by neurons in the brain. Penone's structure is telling us that the big idea forms like the stone at the top of the tree — through a slow and gradual process of crystallization and organization of billions of tiny thoughts (tiny crystals) into one big idea (one big stone).
1. Kuhn, T.S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. 4th edition. (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
2. Kuhn, T.S. The Essential Tension. (University of Chicago Press, 1977) p. 345.
3. Bancroft, S. James Rosenquist: Time Blades. (Acquavella Contemporary Art, Inc., 2007).
4. Mangini, E (2010). Giuseppe Penone talks about Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone). Artforum International. 49, 226-229.
First Row, left to right: Günter Blobel, The Rockefeller University ● J. Michael Bishop, University of California, San Francisco ● Lucy Shapiro, Stanford University ● Joseph Goldstein, Chair of the Jury, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Paul Nurse, The Royal Society ● Diane Mathis, Harvard University ● Jeremy Nathans,
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Second Row, left to right: James Rothman, Yale University ● Eric Kandel, Columbia University ● Titia de Lange, The Rockefeller University ● Huda Zoghbi, Baylor College of Medicine ● Charles Sawyers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Stanley Cohen, Stanford University ● William Paul, National Institutes of Health
Third Row, left to right: Marc Tessier-Lavigne, The Rockefeller University ● Jack Dixon, Howard Hughes Medical Institute ● Richard Lifton, Yale University ● Cornelia Bargmann, The Rockefeller University ● Donald Ganem, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research ● Michael Brown, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Martin Raff, University College London ● Gregory Petsko, Brandeis University ● Craig Thompson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center