Is Frank Wilczek Making Us Look Bad?

Today is Question Day when it comes to post topics, I guess. Over at Fine Structure, Nick asks about the effect of spotlighting brilliant scientists:

I can’t help but think about the repercussions of looking at his clearly above average career as something that’s normal in physics. It’s a deterrent, I think, for all those students that aren’t so completely brilliant that they do Nobel winning physics by 21. And it’s not exactly uncommon to hear about these minds anymore. Is it a function of community density when we funnel all the supremely smart people towards math and science? What does it mean for “normal” people? Even somewhat above average intelligence? It seems like we, as a culture, would believe that the only people to contribute to science are those born with the natural talent, and that’s making it very hard to recruit those above averagers into science.

It’s a fine line, I think. While I am generally in agreement about the marginalization of math and science in general society, I’m not sure I would agree that highlighting the accomplishments of truly brilliant scientists as a general matter (playing up the crazy or quirky aspects of scientific personalities, on the other hand…).

After all, I don’t think anyone would claim that Michael Jordan caused people who were merely very good at basketball to give up the game in despair. Quite the contrary– Jordan’s almost superhuman accomplishments brought people into the game who otherwise wouldn’t’ve played. Ditto Tiger Woods.

The question is not whether we should celebrate Wilczek (or Feynman, or the Famous Genius of your choice), but what, if anything, is different about the way we treat science and the way we treat sports. If hearing about the Michael Jordan of science really intimidates people into doing something else, that’s a symptom of a larger problem, not the fault of the brilliant.


  1. #1 Ahdar
    December 30, 2009

    Frank Wilczek was personally responsible for my BS in Phyiscs. I saw him give a QCD talk I was 13. I understood perhaps every third word, but nothing else would do. I had been leaning towards the biological sciences, but screw that!

    In high school I took physics 1, then AP physics and went on to major in Physics in college. I did… okay. Well enough. I then ‘left’ the physics world for the allied field of EE.

    There are a class of people who won’t engage in a thing unless they are perfect at it. Then there are the rest of us, who are happy to muddle along in something we find rewarding. We play a pick-up game, or jam with our friends, or cook something fancy for dinner on a Tuesday. There’s a whole world of people who *write computer programs for fun*.

    I’m just amazed that with my admittedly mediocre talent, I get *paid* to do something I find so interesting. How cool is that? And a big tip of my hat to Professor Wilczek for starting me on my path.

  2. #2 Nick
    December 30, 2009

    The question is not whether we should celebrate Wilczek but what, if anything, is different about the way we treat science and the way we treat sports.

    The comparison is fascinating and I think you’re on to something. There was a small discussion on twitter about it and the final thought was that even your average scientist makes contributions to science, how can we go about celebrating those contributions just as we celebrate the brilliant ones?

  3. #3 John-Michael Caldaro
    December 30, 2009

    As a HS physics teacher I try to relate the topics we cover to their everyday life. This affords me the ability to highlight the “average scientists'” contribution to their everyday life. I still highlight the outstanding scientists who capture the headlines but the everyday connection helps them not be so intimidated. A former AP physics student came in the other day and he is studying “packaging science.” He is genuinely excited about it. Not the stuff of Nobel prizes but within his capability. I have no doubt he will have a satisfying career. I see the above average students pride themselves on the challenge of science. Most of my best students in AP Physics pursue math or science in college. Many have gone on to get the Phd. and to work in those fields. My opinion is that the sciences work like golf and Tiger and basketball and Jordan. Having been a science teacher for more than 30 years at the secondary level I have seen the number of students who take 4 years of science rise dramatically. Our society has emphasized science as a necessity for the continued success of our country. Colleges have required more science courses from students if they are going to be competitive applicants. States have required more science for graduation. When I first started teaching the schools I taught in, high achieving urban and suburban schools, had 15 or 20% taking physics. At the suburban school I teach in today 70% of the students who graduate have taken some sort of physics. We are a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. When I began teaching the average % of students who took some sort of physics nationally was less than 10%. Today that is doubled.

    I do not believe that the highlighting of the Nobel winner makes it harder to recruit the above average student into the sciences. Today it is much cooler to be a scientist than it ever was before. The science geeks have a revered place in the school social circles the way athletes do. Many of the science geeks are athletes. And Chad you are one cool dude whose students appreciate you. I’ve worked with a few.

  4. #4 John-Michael Caldaro
    December 30, 2009

    One very important thing I forgot to mention is the many cable shows that make science cool. Mythbusters, Time Warp, Junkyard Wars and others are watched by many young people. They ask me if I saw the latest episodes. These are not Nobel Laureates doing the science but average smart people. When Mythbusters takes on the dropped and shot bullet problem, and does it in such a detailed way, it shows the more mundane aspects of science are fascinating and worth working on. By the way I was so envious of the amount of time and equipment they had to explore the problem. All I have been able to do is take the standard demo of a steel sphere dropped and launched horizontally at the same time and use a digital video camera into imovie. It allows me to stop the action a frame at a time and have students see the constant v in the horizontal and constant a in the vertical. The mythbusters show proves it is true even with a bullet.

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