The Value of Incremental Progress

The field of science and mathematics is filled with our acknowledgement of certain people, who we believe made groundbreaking contributions. In Mathematics, this is the norm. Almost every equation, theorem, conjecture or result, is associated with a name. If you don’t believe me, you should look at the Wikipedia page listing the theorems we know in mathematics. In many ways, we do so to acknowledge the contributions of certain individuals who significantly contributed to our understanding of a particular field.

Much of research is an endeavour where we are trying to make slow, incremental progress in our understanding of nature and using this understanding to make our lives a little bit better. Once in a while, we figure out something new and exciting. One could even argue that this event is purely stochastic. To attribute our entire understanding of quantum mechanics for example, to a few individuals who worked in the 1930’s, would be to blatantly disregard important contributions by hundred’s of others.

And in this manner, the rewards in science are heavily biased towards those who manage to convince their peers that they have found something new and exciting. Selling the idea that one’s work is revolutionary should not be the norm, but should be the exception. Perhaps the nature of human interaction has to be such that the “winner takes it all”. So be it. Regardless, there is value in incremental progress, which is too often overlooked.

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