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Moments of great scientific disruption aren’t necessarily glamorous. A world-changing idea might spring up when someone is sitting in an office or scrawling notes, or maybe riffing with a colleague. (Those few colorful stories of Newton’s apple and Archimedes’ bathtub are probably apocryphal.)

Big projects leave more vivid impressions — landing on the moon, testing atom bombs, or, more recently, finding the Higgs boson and detecting Einstein’s predicted gravitational waves using a pair of sprawling but stunningly precise detectors. The paper announcing the Higgs boson boasted 5,000 authors, the one on gravitational wave detection, 1,011 authors. So why bother with small projects at all?

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