Two Heads Are Better Than One

I recently heard a review for a new book by author Joshua Wolf Shenk called Powers of Two. The author not only debunks the “myth of the lone genius” but also makes a case that two is the magic number when it comes to creative collaboration. The idea has a certain intellectual romance to it, which led me to explore a few examples of great pairs in science.


  1. Marie & Pierre Curie Not only a great pair, but also a great couple in science. It was largely due to Marie’s persuasion that Pierre ever submitted his doctoral thesis. In turn, he arranged for her first research position in the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris where he worked. Pierre also engineered the electrometer Marie used for her experiments and eventually abandoned his own research interests to join her work, leading to their discovery of radium, a great body of work on radioactivity and a Nobel Prize.


  1. Peter & Rosemary Grant Another great pair and couple in biology, the Grants are known for their long-term research on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos. Their research has demonstrated evolution under natural selection and made major contributions to our understanding of genetic diversity and the mechanisms behind speciation. Both hold emeritus positions at Princeton University.


  1. Michaelis & Menten Best known for their namesake model used to describe enzyme kinetics. Maud Menten joined Leonor Michaelis in Berlin where they collaborated on the investigation of enzyme activity. In 1913, they published what is now a classic paper in biochemistry describing the relationship between enzyme-substrate concentration and the rate of reaction as predicted by the Michaelis-Menten equation.


  1. Watson & Crick…. & Wilkins & Franklin Although students learn it in high school biology as such, admittedly this shouldn’t be classified as a “pair”. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were working on the structure of DNA at the same time as James Watson and Francis Crick. Using x-ray diffraction, Franklin was able to deduce that DNA takes on a helical shape but wanted to wait to make her findings public until she had more proof. Wilkins shared her findings with Watson and Crick, who then added the idea of complementary strands and incorporated Chargaff’s discovery of base pairing to assemble the double helical DNA model we all know today.


This leads me to the more likely possibility that collaboration in any number can be extremely beneficial. A 2005 BioScience paper found a positive correlation between the number of authors on a publication and its citation rate. A shining example of this is Darwin’s seemingly endless number of correspondences throughout his career. Shenk’s book also notes that creative power can be fueled not just by collaboration but also competition. In this scenario, rivalry between two people (or two groups) can provide the momentum to do something bigger and better than the other. For example, a long-standing debate between R.A. Fisher and Sewall Wright resulted in massive contributions to evolutionary theory and the foundation of the field of theoretical population genetics. Ultimately, it does seem to be the case that truly great ideas rarely develop in isolation.

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