I’ve been revising a chapter on collaboration in science for the book-in-progress, making an analogy to team sports. And it occurred to me as I was trying to find a way to procrastinate, that while science is a highly collaborative endeavor, most of the popular stories that get told about science are not. There’s no Hoosiers of science out there.
Now, admittedly, the sample of great pop-culture stories about science period is pretty small. But what does exist mostly concerns individual struggles– the lone genius who can revolutionize science by just thinking about it in isolation, but who must overcome personal issues first. Your Good Will Hunting/ A Beautiful Mind To the extent that there is a community of science, it generally takes the form of an obstacle to be overcome, an unduly skeptical audience that the protagonist needs to find the confidence to take on and beat. Or other scientists turn out to be frauds and deceivers– Allegra Goodman’s acclaimed Intuition about misconduct in a bio lab, or Carter Scholz’s Radiance about a fictionalized “Star Wars” missile defense program.
While there’s no shortage of sports movies where individuals need to overcome their own demons to realize their full potential, that’s only one form of great sports story. The other is the -pull-together-as-a-team tale, and there’s probably none better than the greatest sports movie ever, Hoosiers. The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is a fictionalized version of the “Milan Miracle”, when Milan High School (enrollment 162) beat Muncie High (enrollment 1,600) for the 1954 Indiana state championship. Gene Hackman plays an abrasive coach who brings in a new system, and is initially so unpopular that a town referendum threatens to remove him, but his players buy into the system and pull together to go on a dramatic run culminating in a state title. (Lots of detail available via the Milan museum…)
That’s not really a story you see in popular discussions of science, even though there are real life examples you could spin that way. Realistically, any kind of experiment is done in a collaborative manner– if nothing else, it almost always requires more than one pair of hands to get everything done– but for whatever reason, they’re often treated as an individual triumph. Even projects at a gigantic scale are somehow cast not as a large team pulling together, but the great effort of a small number of individuals. The Manhattan Project involved thousands of people, including pretty much anybody who was anybody in the middle of the 20th century in physics, but from a lot of the popular treatments of it, you’d think it was Robert Oppenheimer all by himself, with maybe a small assist from a wisecracking Richard Feynman.
This is less true within science (at least my corner of it– for all I know, biologists deliberately teach their students to be assholes). While physics does revere its great individual scientists, a lot of our foundational narratives are more collaborative than the popular image. The Solvay Conferences of the late 1920’s have attained mythic status for bringing together the best physics has ever seen, and the Shelter Island and Pocono conferences that gave birth to QED likewise. Stories about the founding of quantum mechanics always emphasize the vigorous give-and-take, including popular anecdotes like Bohr badgering Schrödinger while the latter was sick in bed. And the vast correspondence between the principal actors in the story shows them more as colleagues working toward a goal than rivals in a cut-throat struggle.
I’m not entirely sure what a Hoosiers for science would look like, but I think it’d be good to see one, a story where individuals who are difficult to work with come together for a higher purpose and by learning to get along accomplish more than they could on their own. Sadly, I suspect that the closest we’re going to get is the Stark-Banner scenes in The Avengers…
(Hoosiers image above from this amusing ESPN “debunking” of the plot.)