Today, whose work is this? The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1935 a superb group of
nine mathematicians banded together under the
fictitious name of Nicolas Bourbaki, and they set
out to write the foundations of all mathematics,
based on set theory. They produced more than
thirty volumes of extremely rigorous mathematics.
In the near term they were quite influential. In
the long term they proved a bit more austere than
useful. Yet Bourbaki remains a major
feature in the landscape of mathematics.
What makes this so interesting is the very idea of
a group of top mathematicians giving themselves
over to anonymity. Their resumes reflected only
that they were members of Bourbaki.
Multiple authorship was rare before the twentieth
century. And, as it's become common, it has not
followed the Bourbaki model. Instead, it reflects
the need for recognition, as well as a belief that
contributions should be reflected accurately.
Today, the nearest we get to the Bourbaki model is
in certain company reports — which differ
profoundly when they list no authors at all.
Now Donald Kennedy, editor of Science
magazine, has written an editorial titled
Multiple Authors, Multiple Problems. And
well he might. I've just checked out the last two
issues of Science, and counted an average of five
authors for each of the major papers.
Kennedy suggests that the US Government has had a
big influence by promoting team science. That, in
itself, might be good, he allows. But, oh, the
problems! And they all revolve around matters of
responsibility. Who do you go to if you
have a question about something in a paper? Who
takes the fall if data turn out to be fudged? Who
gets the Nobel Prize for the work?
I've seen promotion and tenure committees mired in
questions about what the order, and the number, of
authors means. If authorship is alphabetical, does
that mean the ten authors can claim only ten
percent of the credit each? By the way, that number
ten is not unheard of. I've seen papers with over a
I'm old enough to remember a time when anyone with
a name on a paper was assumed to be responsible for
answering any question about that paper. Now
Kennedy talks about the possibility of allowing
each author to define his or her role in the work.
But, he adds, "[We have] no plans to pass out ...
our annual award for the best Science paper, in
little bits and pieces."
I was talking this over with a colleague when I was
surprised to hear myself saying, "Two things I know
for certain: One is that writing a book or a paper
is not a lonely and solitary act. The other is that
it is a lonely and solitary act."
One might find cases where two peoples' vision and
comprehension truly melded in one written work. But
three people? Or twelve? Not likely. I don't
suppose we'll ever know just what really went on
within the group called Bourbaki — any more than
we'll ever trace Melville's mind all the way
through to Moby Dick.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
D. Kennedy, Multiple Authors, Multiple Problems.
Science, Vol. 301, 8 August, 2003, pg. 733.
I am grateful to Lewis T. Wheeler, Editor in Chief
of the journal Mathematics and Mechanics of
Solids, for additional counsel.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.