Personally, I practiced social distancing long before the term became a household phrase during the COVID-19 pandemic—not because I am germophobic, but because the only way to remain creative within the turbulence of mediocrity is to float like a boat above its crashing waves. When seashells and pebbles are dragged by back and forth by ocean waves and rub against each other, they erode and eventually become indistinguishable. The final product is sand.

We do not want our scientists to be like sand. “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his book The Dawn of Day, published in 1881. 

When there is no threat from a pandemic, there is no need for physical distancing, but some form of social distancing can still be useful for maintaining a scientist’s intellectual independence—either by developing a thick skin, or by avoiding the risk of bruises in the first place by avoiding social friction.

Take scientific conferences as an example. There is a lot of wasted time in listening to numerous talks over a single week. We can’t delete uninteresting talks, or fast-forward through them as we could if we were watching prerecorded presentations online. The time sink also includes travel to distant locations—and after getting there, the exposure to a large crowd triggers the “drop in the ocean” feeling regarding your tiny contribution relative to the entire field—which encourages groupthink. Decades ago, I regarded a scientific conference as worthy of the time spent if it inspired me to write one or two papers on new ideas.

Today, however I am inspired much more by reading new preprints on the arXiv every day. This online reservoir of thought exposes me to research done everywhere around the globe on a scale that is far more comprehensive than what could possibly be featured at a specialized conference with a limited number of presentation slots and a fraction of one’s colleagues in attendance. The combination of reading the arXiv and visiting research centers is the optimal strategy to keep up with the latest developments in an active research frontier.

But there are additional benefits to this form of social distancing. Children bully those who look different. Adults do much the same, albeit in subtler ways, when confronted with a challenging point of view that poses a threat to their ego. In particular, scientists who lack fresh insights and continue to work on a single research project throughout their entire career tend to dismiss the diversity of ideas in their discipline. Social media amplify this bullying of our most creative colleagues by appealing to the lowest common denominator in their audiences. We must create an alternative intellectual atmosphere in which innovation blossoms in the face of mediocrity.

Let me elaborate.

Public attention to new scientific findings often triggers jealousy by mainstream scientists who are not associated with the discovery team. Take the reaction of some vocal astronomers to the public announcement of the team led by Jane Greaves on September 14, 2020, concerning the detection of phosphine (PH3) in the cloud decks of Venus—which, to be clear, which was never presented as undisputable evidence for extraterrestrial life. First, there was a (subsequently retracted) statement by some members from Commission F3 on Astrobiology of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which noted on October 5, 2020:

“… the Commission is concerned with the way the potential detection of phosphine has been covered for the broad audience. It is an ethical duty for any scientist to communicate with the media and the public with great scientific rigor and to be careful not to overstate any interpretation which will be irretrievably picked up by the press and generate great public attention in the case of life beyond Earth. The way results about phosphine were reported lead some news organizations to report that evidence for life in Venus was found. The Commission understands that such a reaction by the press would reflect high interest in astrobiology research by the public. Such a report, however, misleads the public, and might be harmful to the advancement of astrobiology research.”

Within a few weeks of this warning, a number of arXiv preprints dismissed the Greaves et al. result, with one stating in the initial version of its abstract (which was later revised): “We ultimately conclude that this detection of PH3 in the atmosphere of Venus is incorrect and invite the Greaves et al. team to revise their work and consider a correction or retraction of their original report.”

A balanced response to the Greaves et al. report, by contrast, should also have included a comparable number of follow-up papers highlighting the study’s great significance and implications. But there were only two papers posted in this supportive mold, both of them from my research group. The astrobiology community is supposed to nurture and encourage the search for extraterrestrial life. While constructive criticism of new results is always helpful, it should have been communicated in a more collegial and collaborative tone.

But there is a broader point as well. If we dismiss phosphine as a biosignature on the nearest planet to Earth so forcefully, can we expect the claim for extraterrestrial life to be convincing following a future detection of molecules like oxygen (O2) and methane (CH4) in exoplanet atmospheres, which could also be produced by nonbiotic chemistry? Given the skepticism expressed in the phosphine case, the only indisputable biosignature in the atmosphere of a planet would involve complex molecules like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from industrial pollution by a civilization, as considered in a 2014 paper from my group. Even though the mainstream was quick to dismiss the phosphine report, it is very slow in endorsing a search for industrial pollution in planetary atmospheres. My interest in searching for intelligence in outer space is partly because I gave up on finding it on Earth.

Of course, complete social isolation is also not a good practice. There needs to be some level of constructive social interaction to stimulate creative ideas. Comments from colleagues often induce breakthroughs. For example, many of the celebrated innovations at Bell Labs, including the inventions of the transistor, the laser, the photovoltaic cell and the charge-coupled device (CCD), were fostered by conversations between theoretical physicists and engineers who were concerned with practical applications. And a conversation between Bell Labs scientists and a group at Princeton led to the Nobel Prize–winning discovery in 1964 of the cosmic microwave background that represents the faint echo of light emitted by the infant universe (relatively) shortly after the big bang—thus lending powerful support to what is now the prevailing model of the cosmos.

Finally, it should be noted that some scientific projects are best pursued in large groups, where individualism must surrender to a master plan. Just as in an orchestra, it is essential for members of these groups to adhere to the roles assigned to them for the symphony to sound right. Distancing does not bode well for this mode of operation. During the COVID-19 era, members of these tight collaborations communicate online. Such “seashells” and “pebbles” move together in a cluster and hence do not break into indistinguishable pieces over time.