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Scientist Rock Star!

In an interview in Time magazine, Morgan Spurlock said, among else (and you should go and read the “else”):

We’ve started to make science and empirical evidence not nearly as important as punditry–people wusing p.r.-speak to push a corporate or political agenda. I think we need to turn scientists back into the rock stars they are.

Chris brought this quote to the bloggers’ attention and Shelley was the first to respond:

I find this quote so refreshing (not just because it places us scientists up on a lofty pedestal), because it validates scientific authority figures as someone worth listening to.

Dan Rhoads picked up on this and, after putting in his two cents, turned this into a meme or sorts, or an alternative “Ask The Science Blogger” question, tagging three people to answer the same question: who might qualify as a scientist rock-star?

Hsien Lei was the first to respond. RPM will probably respond soon, and I will try to think of something under the fold….

As is usual in these simple questions, one first needs to clearly define the terms and uncover the underlying assumptions. What do words “qualify”, “scientist” and “rock star” really mean in this context? Someone with a PhD playing electrical guitar on a stage? I guess not. Someone with long hair, with groupies, snorting powder in hotel rooms and saying outrageous things? Probably not.

What I take it to mean is a scientist who did or discovered something really important and whose name is, thus, as well known as any movie star or rock star. A household name. Someone whose pronouncements on any and every topic would be as widely reported by the media and as widely repeated by the regular folks as pronouncements by Brittney Spears (“Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.”).

Am I asking too much?

The operative word in the above paragraph was “regular folks”. On science blogs, with college buddies, in a circle of well-educated people with interest in science, it is easy to forget that most people have never heard of Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Ian Wilmut, Paul Sereno, James Watson, Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould. Those names are familiar to a particular class of people, but not all people in America or the world.

If you ask a person on the street to tell you a name of a famous scientist, you will almost never hear a name of someone who is still alive. Einstein, most likely. In some other places in the world, a local scientific hero is the first name to come out of everyone’s mouth. Newton and Darwin may show up. Some inventors, like Wright brothers may be mentioned. Quacks will appear sometimes, like Rupert Sheldrake or Deepak Chopra. But nobody who is a widely-respected scientist and currently alive.

Is it generational, or is it geographical? When I asked my son, he said Einstein. When prodded for more, he came up with Wright brothers. Then Newton and Darwin and, of course, Tesla. When asked for someone still alive, he pointed his finger at me – I am the only living scientist he knows. When I trotted out a list of current scientific superheroes, he was unaware of any of them. Then he said that his buddies knew even less.

When I was a kid back in Yugoslavia, everyone, and I mean everyone, knew who Carl Sagan, Richard Attenborough and David Bellamy were because these were popularizers – we all watched their TV shows all the time. We knew the names of Magnus Pike and Miriam Stoppard (together with Bellamy) from the adorable 1970s show “Don’t Ask Me”. An average Yugoslav walking the streets of Belgrade and other big cities (but not neccessarily countryside) at the time has probably read at least something by Desmond Morris or Richard Dawkins if nothing better, and was selling his collection of Charles Pierce’s translated works on a makeshift stand on the street.

Older generations may know even more. Many physicists were active in speaking out against the use of nuclear weapons back in the late 1940s and 1950s, so they were in the media a lot.

Go even further into the past. Let’s say late 19th and early 20th century. No radio, no television, no Internet. Newspapers held in as low regard as today concerning untrustworthiness, bias, shallowness and love of scandal. Most people live in small communities and even the largest cities are not that large yet. What do people do in order to stay current, as well as in order to remain members of the community?

They all go with their friends to whatever is in town. If a theater comes in, they all go to see the play. Or a movie. Or a concert. Or a circus. Or a magician. Or a Presidential candidate giving his stump speech….Or a scientist.

Then, tomorrow, they all talk about it. If you did not go, you are weird and a pariah. You are effectively excommunicating yourself from your community.

So, a scientist travelling around the country was entertainment. Some scientists were really good at showbiz – everyone wanted to go see the lightbulb shining while held in Tesla’s hand (and not noticing where his other hand is) or watching him produce showers of lightnings on stage. Hopefully, apart from the entertainment, they also remembered some of the stuff he spoke about during his shows – the physics underlying his special effects.

So, do we really want to see scientists as entertainers again? Is that one possible – and legitimate – way to present science to the masses, to those people who are the least likely to do anything about learning science on their own? When Stephen Hawking shows up, you cannot get a ticket, but those in the audience are not local farmers.

In this day of mass communications, it is logical to use modern technology to further your aims, so popularization of science should do the same. Turning some scientists into radio personalities, talk-show hosts, TV stars, movie stars and Internet stars (MySpace and blogs, for instance) should be a part of a multi-prong strategy to spread the scientific reasoning and rationality, as well as excitement for knowledge about the natural world.

But the first step has to be made within the scientific community. Denigrating the “popularizers” and advising students that only getting pale-complexioned by pipetting for 13 hours straight every day is considered “serious” enough to count as being a scientist and all extra-curricular activities are bad for your CV and job prospects – those are the attitudes we have to get rid of really fast if we want scientific enterprise to survive in a friendly and supportive social environment.

This is, I think, quite related to the recent string of blogposts by Jonah, Chad, Chad, Steinn and Steinn on the perception of science as “hard work” and thus boring, and an insecure career.

We need scientific rock stars. But how do we choose them and how do we put them out there to do their job?

Now I’ll tag David and Benjamin, Janet and Abel to answer the same question.

Update: Daniel, Alun Salt, Afarensis, Chad and Steinn respond…


  1. #1 afarensis
    July 27, 2006

    Even though you didn’t tag me. I did it anyway. You can find it here

  2. #2 Relic
    July 27, 2006

    As a kid, my favorite ‘popularizer’ of science was Bill Nye. I have to say I think it was a good thing.

  3. #3 Hsien Lei
    July 28, 2006

    I can identify with the pale complexioned bit. I was tan when I went from California to Baltimore for grad school and have been pale ever since.

  4. #4 Wim Lewis
    July 28, 2006

    I think most people have heard of Stephen Hawking — I’m judging from his name’s occasional appearance in popular culture. Maybe people only know him as “that scientist guy in the wheelchair with the mechanical voice”, but then again, they may only know Einstein as “that scientist guy with the bushy hair”.

    Fair’s fair: there are a lot of rock stars I only know by their mode of dress or one stereotyped photograph. I know as little of their music as the next guy may know of Hawking’s research.

  5. #5 clueless
    July 28, 2006

    Olivia Newton-John (rock star physicist(?))

  6. #6 wamba
    July 28, 2006

    As I pointed out over on Dan’s blog, Greg Graffin is an actual rock star with a PhD in evolutionary paleontology.

  7. #7 Jenna
    July 28, 2006

    There’s a rock band called We Are Scientists, but I don’t think they are…

    Here’s an article on music and science mixing; I have a friend who is a scientist and a long-time classical piano player. And didn’t Einstein play the violin? 🙂

    A grad student friend of mine (PChem) introduced me to MC Hawking, it’s definitely not “scientist rock star”. However, if you’re in for rap-n-science, the lyrics are pretty funny:

    I’m a disciple of science
    I know the universe is compliance with natural laws,
    but many place reliance on the psuedo-science of quacks and
    morons and fools because,
    their educations deficient,
    they put faith in omniscient,
    make believe beings who control their fate,
    but the Hawk ain’t with it, dig it,
    their Holy writ ain’t the least bit legit,
    it’s a bunch of bullshit.

    They need to read a book that ain’t so damn old,
    let reason take hold,
    though truth to be told,
    they’re probably already too far gone,
    withdrawn, the conclusion foregone.
    But maybe there is still hope for the young,
    if they reject the dung being slung from the tongues,
    of the ignorant fools who call themselves preachers,
    and listen instead to their science teachers.


  8. #8 Jenna
    July 28, 2006

    Science rocks stars to me, in my chosen field?: Eric Kandel & Antonio Damasio. Other rock stars to me in other fields are: Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, Francois Jacob…

    How do we choose them? IMO, I think they chose themselves.

  9. #9 Mouth of the Yellow River
    July 28, 2006

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

    In some other places in the world, a local scientific hero is the first name to come out of everyone’s mouth.

    David Suzuki deserves an honorable mention.

    But an example of a real rocking star hero is Gordon Sato who moved from lab, office, institution and National Academy of Science member before he got to be a burden on the younger folks and moved into the field and become a local hero in the most unexpected way and place. He played a mean sax with the Manzanar camp jazz band even before he went into science.


  10. #10 Coffee Mug
    July 29, 2006

    scientist Rap star?

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