The image of the scientist as a socially inept loner who lives only for his work appears to have its roots in truth. Research has established an association between autistic traits and scientific skills, writes Steve Farrar.
The study, to be published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, suggests that traits - such as poor social understanding and communication skills, repetitive behaviour, excellent attention to detail and limited imagination - are no barrier to excelling in physical sciences.
Simon Baron-Cohen, co-director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, said: "It seems that people who have autistic traits may find it easier or more natural to work in these fields."
Dr Baron-Cohen's team has devised a set of psychological profiling tests to determine levels of autistic traits. Individuals are awarded an Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) score of between zero and 50 - the more severe the traits, the higher the score.
In tests, a group of 58 adults diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a milder form of autism, which affects one person in 300, scored an average AQ of 35.8.
The experts then tested 174 members of the public, 840 Cambridge University students, and 16 winners of the United Kingdom Mathematics Olympiad.
They found that the Cambridge students differed little from the general population, with an AQ of 17.6 compared with 16.4. However, scientists scored significantly higher than both humanities and social sciences students.
Mathematicians gained average scores of 21.5, a level surpassed only by the Mathematics Olympiad group with 24.5; followed by those studying computer science (21.1); physical sciences (19.6); engineering (17.9); medicine (15.4); and biology (14.9).
In a separate study, published in the journal Neurocase, the experts tested three high flyers with Asperger Syndrome including a professor who has won the Field medal and a theoretical physics student who could recite Pi to 37 decimal places at age 10.
All performed poorly, suggesting social intelligence is independent of other forms of intelligence.