Monday, March 02, 2015

Celebrity Science

Generally speaking, scientists are only slightly more likely to become celebrities than plumbers and electricians. The most obscure movie actor is usually celebrated a good deal more than the most famous scientist. Bee has an blog post entitled Are pop star scientists bad for science? I don't think it's at all up to her usual high standard, mostly because she doesn't consider how scientists become celebrities, and wastes a lot of words on silly fantasies, like imagining that deGrasse Tyson commented on a paper of hers.

The scientists she mentions, Einstein, Sagan, Feynman, Hawking, and deGrasse Tyson are interesting but rather diverse examples. Einstein, the transcendent genius of his age, became famous because his theories revolutionized our understanding of time. Like Newton, he was a legend in his own lifetime almost solely because of his work.

Sagan, Feynman and Hawking were and are very important scientific contributors, but like deGrasse Tyson are famous not for their work but for their popularization of science and scientific life. Feynman was a legend in physics long before he became a more general celebrity. That legend was composed of roughly equal parts of his accomplishment, his larger than life personality, and his gift for subtle self-promotion as a raconteur.

My point is that some almost freakish concatenation of circumstances is necessary for a scientist to become a celebrity, and skill at explaining science to the public is usually a key component. Unless you think that the general public should be kept ignorant of science it's foolish to criticize "celebrity science".