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.