The Intersection

What a great quote from Morgan Spurlock in the latest issue of Time magazine. In a sense, with these words Spurlock articulates a key aspect of what I’ve found Seed magazine to be all about. I encourage you to check out the whole interview with Spurlock, and then watch season two of 30 Days, starting this week….


  1. #1 Lab Cat
    July 25, 2006

    Hey Chris

    Congratulations on the film his making of your book. That’s very cool.


  2. #2 Bill Hooker
    July 25, 2006

    Much as I like a fellow who stirs things up, and Spurlock certainly seems to fit that bill, I think he’s way off base in that quote. Scientists are not rock stars; the qualities that make a good scientist tend not to cosegregate with the qualities you want in your rock stars.

    I quite agree that it would be nice to have the public as interested in the latest research as in some film star’s latest purchases — but I really don’t think anything good will come of an attempt to get there by cultivating “celebrity scientists”.

  3. #3 slgalt
    July 25, 2006

    Scientists ARE rockstars!

    Science needs our help. We need some bright shiny branding and some kick ass framing.

    There must be a fight for the sanctity of science especially in the classroom. But more important, we must stop the drift of complacency about science. People either reject it out of fear or take it for granted and don’t know it is under attack.

    We need to breathe new life into it. We need to brand it as sexy/cool – show that it’s amazing, astonishing, awe-inspiring, exciting, hair-raising, heart-stirring, impressive, magnificent, moving, overwhelming, spine-tingling, stunning, thrilling and awesome.

    Similar to the policy wonk language in politics that is killing the progressive message, we need to convince science advocates to start talking less wonky too. I think that science has to have some savvy champions that aren’t all geeked out.

    I hope that sites like this, and the work Chris does, can do for the science community what Lakoff did to wake up the political community. I plea to the scientific community to start thinking about branding and framing before it’s too late.

  4. #4 Fred Bortz
    July 25, 2006

    As an author of a science biography for middle grades (Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Scientist Heidi Hammel ) and a book of scientist profiles for young readers (To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science ), my objectives were (1) to show that scientists are normal but interesting people who have found questions that motivate their lives; (2) to show that you don’t need to be a “genius” or a “nerd” to succeed in science. Richard Smalley told me other people never expected him to amount to much, and neither did he himself. In 1996, a year after the interview but before the book went to press quoting him in that way, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his “buckyball” work. (Alas, he died a few months ago.)

    If I portrayed these people as “Rock Stars,” it would make science seem less accessible. I’m sure some of my readers will see these folks as “cool,” but in a way that is within their reach.

  5. #5 Lance Harting
    July 25, 2006

    I agree with Fred and Bill Hooker. Nothing good can come from a scientist attaining a cult of personality. Einstein was the last real “star” scientist and it only served to distract the public from the significance of his work.

    As a nascent scientist I have no desire for notoriety outside the scientific community. While I do have the occasional day dream of discovering some basic principle of the universe that would become known as “Harting’s Law” (that sound is my colleagues laughing out loud) I would not want to have “groupies” seeing me as some demigod.

    Well maybe just one or two really hot ones.

    I think the best public perception of scientists would be one of open-minded, well trained craftsman not star-like personalities.

  6. #6 Chris Mooney
    July 26, 2006

    I think some folks are misinterpreting…I only take the quote to mean that we need to get back to an era, like the postwar and post-Sputnik era, in which scientists are seen as national leaders and the solvers of key problems that confront us all. And I would add that scientist celebrities, like Einstein or even Sagan, play a key role in popularizing science for the public.

  7. #7 mark
    July 26, 2006

    Like using the image of scientists in commercials. Remember the cigarette commercial discussing its newfangled filter (“You’d need a scientist to explain it)? Or all the talk about pH and shampoo? And we need more movies like we had during the post-Sputnik era, like “Godzilla.”
    Well, seriously, Sputnik spurred on American science by highlighting a perceived threat. Today, we have serious threats that can be alleviated by science-based actions that are more real than evil commie atheists, yet our Administration pooh-poohs those threats, favoring instead action against the evil-commie-atheist replacement, evil Saddam. And actions against this “threat” are not based on science. Something has changed.

  8. #8 scientist
    July 26, 2006

    As a scientist I’d be happy with more pay. Science is a profession where you can spend 4 years in undergrad and another couple of years in graduate school and still make under $1,800 a month. It’s sad. At my place of employment, the secretaries with GEDs are making more than I do with a masters degree.

  9. #9 G
    July 26, 2006

    Mark said: “Something has changed.”

    The “something” that has changed is that (unlike back in the 50’s, 60’s or even 80’s) our country is now “led” (effectively ruled) by people who live in their own “virtual reality” — a completely artifical reality created just for themselves, their business associates and their friends.

    It’s far easier to create a “virtual reality” than it is to do the “hard work” required to adress “real reality”.

    And, most important of all, one can always be sure that the virtual reality that one creates is to one’s liking, something that one can rarely (if ever) do with the real one.

  10. #10 Theodore Price
    July 26, 2006

    Sagan, now he was a Rock Star. I remember being about 6 and being completely enthralled by NOVA and then once I was old enough to read them, being equally enthralled by his books. The man inspired me to become interested in science and to eventually become a scientist. While I never became the astrophysicist I had aspired to be, I sure do love being a neurobiologist.

    When I first started grad school we had one of these memorial lectures where a giant (in this case I think it was Sir James Black) came to give a lecture. All the grad students went to lunch with him and he asked us who our science hero was (I think all scientists have at least one). Most everyone gave biology people answers and when it came my turn I said Carl Sagan and explained why. Turns out that while he wasn’t the name on the tips of everyone else’s tongues, almost all the Western Hemisphere raised people agreed that he had a huge impact on their movement toward science at an early age. Since then, I love to ask that question, and while I occassionally get his name without saying it myself, only a small minority of the people that hear me mention him as my science hero don’t concur that he had a lasting impact on their lives as scientists.

    As a working scientist, I know many, many scientists that are equally charismatic and can widdle down to the point of a problem so that even a 6 year old can grasp it and follow the story to the solution. It continually bewilders me, however, why these people don’t take up even part of the task that Sagan started for all of us. I suppose it likely has little to do with them, but I do wonder, if given the opportunity, how many of them would jump at it. I think many of our peers would likely frown at the idea (as some above have) but this is really the height of silliness. Its just teaching, after all, on a much larger scale. I think the public loses some of the connection to the work when Morgan Freeman is narrating the story that scientists have toiled long and hard to put together (and he said as much in a documentary I recently saw up here on the Canadian HBO equivalent). If not have the person doing the work telling the story, at least have a spokesperson that is their peer doing the telling.

    So, if NOVA or Morgan Spurlock or channel 975 Quebec Media ever come knocking on my door to ask me to do my best to talk to the public about chronic pain (my feild) I’m jumping at it — laughs from my peers be damned! There might be some 6 year old out there who thinks I’m interesting, and I’ll take that anyday.

  11. #11 Fred Bortz
    July 26, 2006

    I’m also a Sagan admirer, not because of the rock star persona that he clearly relished, but rather because he was willing, even eager, to speak to audiences outside of his scientific peer group.

    He was able to do that with great success while maintaining an academic position at a prestigious university, though it resulted in some disdain by his scientific colleagues.

    I’m not that good, so I reach my audience (teens and pre-teens) not from a scientific position but as a full-time writer and lapsed physicist. (See )

    My secondary audience is educated adults, and I reach them through book reviews, including the following one of two Sagan biographies from 1999. Nothing else I have written better states why I admire Sagan despite his personal flaws (or perhaps because of them)

    (Includes this quote: “Unlike most academics, who spend their careers plumbing narrow intellectual tributaries and publishing their findings as cryptic papers in journals for the scientific elite, Sagan exuberantly splashed through the entire cosmic ocean, sharing both discovery and speculation with everyone. He was the kid who dashed and shouted along the beach, while they carefully crafted sand castles in the coves. No wonder so many colleagues resented his fame — even when his celebrity brought public support to their work.”)

  12. #12 Oran Kelley
    July 28, 2006

    Well, one has to be careful in this realm. “Rock star” sounds good, but for a lot of folks, a lot of the folks worth influencing in our culture, “rock star” is code for feckless, undeserving, presumptuous sack of bovine waste.

    And scientists probably have a bit more authority and respect than they relaize. What can be cooler than telling you fourth grade classmates that your mom is a DNA scientist, or that she’s working on a cure for diabetes?

    And, lastly, where scientists DO pull the rock star thing–I am smarter than you, let me show you how–I have a feeling they are doing more harm than good.

    Arrogance and the rock-star persona go pretty much hand in hand. Rock stars are pretty much powerless outside of their fame, so their arrogance is safe.

    Scientists have the reputation of potentially having great power–the power of the stars, the secret of life, the ability to sahpe and change the world around us. Power and arrogance together is more likely to rouse the torch-bearing masses than to win anyone over to the side of science.

  13. #13 drcharles
    July 29, 2006

    I once read that the ratio of lawyers to engineers in the US is 10:1, but that in Japan it’s the exact opposite. I tend to disagree with some of the commenters who fear that promoting science as “cool” or “rockstar” will degrade the nobility of the ivory tower. we need people to be interested in science, to value it, to aspire to learn its truths and methods, to celebrate its icons – especially when MTV and American Idol and Paris Hilton dominate the public conscience of youth. No one, Chris included, is saying that scientists should try to grab the mic and start beatboxing… but why not promote scientific role models who aren’t just curmudgeonly cavemen hiding away with their knowledge?

  14. #14 Dark Tent
    July 29, 2006

    “I once read that the ratio of lawyers to engineers in the US is 10:1”

    Actually, NSF puts the total number of engineers employed in the US at about 1.25 million, the total number of scientists (not just PhD’s) at just over 2 million.

    The number of lawyers in the US is just over 1 million.

    So the ratio of #lawyers: #engineers is roughly 1:1 and #lawyers: #scientists is 1: 2.

    But if the argunment is that more of those who become lawayers should (or even might) become scientists instead, I’m dubious. I would guess that many of those who become lawyers would probably not make good engineers or scientists anyway. They simply don’t think like engineers or scientists.

    They think like… well, lawyers and the difference between them is like that between night and day.

    A good lawyer adopts a basic premise at the very start and then goes hunting for “facts” to “prove” that premise. Inconvenient facts are either ignored or dismissed. The law is a cherry picker’s paradise.

    A good scientist or engineer, on the other hand, keeps an open mind and attempts to look at all the available evidence before drawing conclusions.

    This difference is cultivated by our colleges and universities of course, but there is probably also a certain amount of self-selection going on as well and I suspect that it may begin quite early in life.

    In other words, those who eventually become scientists or engineers already had a tendency to think like scientists or engineers and those who become lawyers already possessed a tendency to think like lawyers.

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