Ned Shaw

That guy is 20 years ahead of his time. He could be a flake or a genius, who knows?" Spoken by a neuroscientist about his colleague at an annual convention, these words set me thinking. What does he mean? Can anyone be 20 years ahead of time? The better explanation must be that academic science may live 20 years in the past.

This explanation rings true when we realize the pace of contemporary science: It is incremental, consensual, and expensive. Progress is slow in the mainstream. An academic scientist can take many months or even years to begin work. But the independent scientist can start up and fund a project in a few weeks.

When I say independent scientist, I mean the likes of Darwin, Mendel, and Newton during the plague years. In those simpler times, the scientifically inclined worked at home or at the monastery, discovering no...

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