Jonny Berliner - science through song

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Opinions and reflections on the dissemination of science from a science troubadour, educator and sci ed researcher.

Have we lost the last of a kind?

This week’s sad news of Professor Stephen Hawking’s passing did not just rock the science world, it was major world news. He was one of the few to achieve mainstream popularity whilst producing the kind of scientific ideas that will be remembered long after his death. In many ways, he became an icon; the image that many people imagine when they think of a scientist. Much has already been written about his remarkable life, the theories he propounded, his disability, his sense of humour and his ability to communicate cutting edge cosmology to the public, and I will have nothing new to say on these, but they have got me thinking about the nature of iconic status in science, whether we can expect to ever have an icon like him again, and whether we even need one.

Whether we like it or not, humans are designed to be drawn to celebrity; most probably an evolutionary quirk that helps us align ourselves to the most able and powerful in society. Our celebrities mostly fit with a usual understanding of evolutionary fitness; beautiful women or muscular men. Yet despite not being able to move, Professor Hawking managed to achieve as much celebrity as any other human on Earth. If you were to ask a child to name a living scientist most would have thought of Hawking first, and whilst his disability helped him to be distinctive, it takes more than brains and a distinctive look to become an icon of science.

Perhaps the only other person to have ever embodied the public image of the scientist as completely was Einstein and both he and Hawking had much in common. Both were theoretical physicists and their work told us about the universe in the widest sense. Einstein’s concept of spacetime changed our understanding of the fabric of the universe itself and forced us to reconsider how space and time worked on the deepest level. Hawking’s work built on this and used general relativity to show not only how the universe may have begun but through his work on the entropy of black holes, shed light on how the universe may end too. By thinking about the universe in the most expansive way possible they expanded the boundaries of our existence and our minds in turn. We couldn’t expect the same reaction to theoretical chemistry. Chemical reactions just don’t inspire the same level of awe and awe is a powerful emotion.

As awe inspiring as their thinking was, not every theoretical physicist becomes an icon. They were also unusually prodigious, overturning prevailing theories at a young age. Einstein ushered in the era of modern physics at the age of 25 with his papers on special relativity and the photoelectric effect and Hawking famously destroyed Fred Hoyle’s paper on steady state theory during his PhD. When Cambridge University published Hawking’s PhD online last year, it was downloaded so many times that the website crashed. It was not just because Hawking wrote it, it was also because it was important and fascinating research. Most of us cannot fathom having that level of natural talent. As such, we elevate those who do to legendary status.

There are, of course, many prodigious talents who will never become such popular figures. Unlike many other scientists of their stature, Einstein and Hawking both had a very human side. They both had a mischievous sense of humour and cared little for appearances. Einstein was synonymous with unkempt hair and Hawking with his oft ridiculed computer voice but neither made any effort to change them. They wore their idiosyncrasies with pride. Without these traits they would have been intimidating and unapproachable. Nobody likes a know-it-all, but a know-it-all that can laugh at themselves and, perhaps more importantly, laugh at others for revering them, is human. It was not just their harmless quirks that were endearing, both characters were outspoken on humanitarian issues and the dangers of pursuing technological advances unquestioningly. They were not inward facing. They embraced the needs of humanity and this only added to their public adoration.

When we look at this remarkable collection of attributes I cannot help but wonder if we will ever see the likes of a Hawking or an Einstein again. Any original contributions that lone theorists can make nowadays are highly abstracted and describe phenomena so far removed from everyday experience that it is hard to imagine them resonating with the general populous. Furthermore, much new science is produced by large teams. It gets harder and harder to point to someone and label them as scientist worthy of fame over and above anyone else. Science is an increasingly team effort and making a ground-breaking discovery no longer means that the public will be interested in what you have to say.

Science is also being increasingly popularised by dedicated science communicators. The celebrity scientists that are coming through today are those that use their time to engage with the media. They are as immersed in the communication of their subject, as they are in the knowledge creation of their subject if not more so. In many ways, this is a move in the right direction. Communicating science is a very different skill to being able to do it. Whilst Hawking was a great populariser of his research I felt there was much in A Brief History of Time, that was poorly explained, and we now recognise the need for more specialised communication skills to bring science alive.

 The prevailing wisdom on how we pick our scientific role models suggests that we want to make them as far removed from a Hawking or an Einstein as possible. Young people are less likely to follow a scientific path because their image of a scientist is impossibly intelligent, often male, white and middle class. They are seen as having a narrow range of skills and more interested in the mysteries of the universe than human flourishing. If a young Hawking was starting his career now, he would probably be more interested in pursuing his research than spending his time communicating it through the media. If he did make the decision to court the public eye, then he would struggle to be as accepted as the face of science as it would already be an over-represented type of a face and one that we are trying to move away from.

I welcome these changes. We want our scientists to be representative. We want our communicators to be first-rate dedicated communicators, and having science viewed as a team effort is not only good for making it seem like a more attainable career goal, it is also good for science itself, as it removes the need for a researcher to massage their findings to gain acceptance. It improves the integrity of the whole scientific endeavour. Hawking led a truly amazing life. He inspired thousands not just to pursue science but to pursue their dreams in the face of adversity. We have lost a truly unique and precious mind and it is a sad farewell, but we may also finally be able to say farewell to the romanticised trope of the iconic scientist as an eccentric genius with a beautiful mind lost in cosmic wonder.