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Lamenting the loss (or, Where did they go?)

Posted by bob1, 31 October 2010 · 98,440 views

The recent passing of one of my scientific heroes, Benoît Mandelbrot, the overly large sports section, coupled with the distinct lack of science news in the newspaper this morning has me thinking... Where are our science heroes these days?

It seems to me that in the mid 20th century there were a lot of scientists who were mainstream and in the public eye regularly. Such well known scientists as Einstein, Oppenheimer and Feynmann along with the Goodalls and Leakeys and Carl Sagan (so you don't think I'm all about the physicists) were part of the public consciousness and regularly on/in the news for their opinions and work. But in these times, it seems that we don't have the same rapport with our scientists, other than those viewed as freaks or those who have beaten the odds (e.g. Stephen Hawking). Why should it be that way? We still have nobel laureates and many, many other scientists doing exceptional and exciting research, most of which struggles to reach a few lines in the papers. If you went out onto the street and asked a random passer-by to name a working scientist, could they do it?

Through my looking-glass, it appears that there may be two three four reasons

Surprise and fear! Fear and surprise and a ruthless efficiency! First is that there is a general lack of understanding of science in the general population, such that the general population now fears science to a greater extent than formerly and is worried that science will end the world somehow. Perhaps this is partly caused by the next reason...

Which is, the tendency amongst the media to only really report on things that have gone wrong, such as animal rights protests or escaped GM crops, or mis-diagnoses from doctors leading to a death/disfigurement of a patient. Along with a hyping of pseudo-science, where genuine science is painted as the bad guys as they don't/can't give a full reason why something won't work and stick to the scientific, but easily misconstrued as weak, arguments of statistical probablility and statements like "We can't say that about X at this point in time"

Third is a lack of visibility - there are no more large projects with an obvious objective and outcome (the Large Hadron Collider is underground and most people don't know or care what a Higgs bosun is) for people to get behind. The race for the moon in the 1960's was a big, obvious outcome project. Sure, people will support cancer research and mental health research etc., but there isn't anything tangible there for people to see and they certainly don't understand the research that is being done.

fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and a fanatical devotion to the popeFourth is the lack of communication. As scientists we are used to using language and abbreviations every day that are completely incomprehensible to the average person, indeed, outside of your specific field of research it is quite likely that you, dear reader, as a scientist still won't understand many of the the terms used.

So I reckon it is time for scientists to learn to communicate simply and effectively so that when their research makes it into the news they can explain what they do, how they do it and why and possibly create a new science hero.

I think it also has a lot to do with the cult of celebrity. why talk about science when brad and angie could be splitting up? there is a big thing in the ground somewhere that might cause the world to end... but did you see Paris Hilton's dress? OMG, what was she thinking?
That's true, though why scientists can't be celebrities too is beyond my comprehension. People really go for "science" type shows such as CSI and Bones, but don't seem to translate that popularity on to the scientists.
You are right about the cult of celebrity and the manipulation of science for sensationalism, but I disagree with your statement regarding lack of visibility. Science IS everywhere and in the mainstream. It's just not idolized. I'm not so sure it was as idolized in the past as you would think.

I think that you put your finger on the problem with your mention of CSI and Bones--people have become conditioned to admire beautiful, poised people saying intelligent words (just maybe not in intelligent sentences). How many scientists can inspire a following based on their photograph or demeanor?

No offense, but most of us look like we could use a vacation...or at least a nap. :D
Yes, science is literally everywhere in our lives, but it doesn't make the news... try it tonight, go home and watch the news. I would be willing to bet that there are 15-20 minutes on sports, 5 minutes on what some celebrities have done recently (X gave birth, Y died, Z wore a fancy dress, etc.), some local and international news and weather rounding out the hour. There is not likely to be any mention of scientists.

I wasn't saying that science was idolised, just that it was more common to hear about scientific discoveries (and the scientists behind them)... so much so that many news companies have actually stopped having specific science journalists.

I agree that many scientists are not the best presented - hell, I could sure use a nap right now... which is why I am procrastinating on my work and posting this.
People who get as far as reading this might be interested in the following article at "The Scientist": http://www.the-scien.../display/57812/
yes, the heroes are still there, and science is done every day, but the media sometimes twists the words that scientists use during press releases.

at least here in the uk, scientific press releases are a very common thing and make it to the newspapers, however, just to mention an example, i just attended a seminar by a guy who is working on an EST library of wheat, but the newspaper said something like "new genome sequencing for improving crops and increasing yield!!"

in my home country some newspapers do have a science section, which generally is based on news from other international newspapers, and every now and then they mention the national scientists and the work they are doing, which is not too bad. anyway, i've never watched a lot of tv, and even less now that i have to pay for a tv license :D
True, yet there are many excellent science broadcasters worth noting: David Suzuki, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Vincent Racaniello, Dick Despommier, Elio Schaechter, Michael Schmidt, Carl Zimmer, Richard Dawkins aot name but a few.

Many have excellent blogs and podcasts. Some are also on television. All podcasts are free both online and at itunes store.

For example, check out "Small things considered."
blog http://schaechter.asmblog.org/
podcast http://www.microbewo...=107&Itemid=275

I also like at Microbworld This Week in Virology, This Week in Parasitism, Meet the Scientist http://www.microbeworld.org/index.php

Also, check out podcasts by AAAS, Big Picture Science, Ideas from CBC radio, Neuropod, Quackcast, Quirks and Quarks (CBC radio and podcast), Science Talk, Star Talk (Neil Degrasse Tyson).
On TV there are on PBS TV NOVA, Nature, on CBC TV Nature of Things.
I agree we still have some very public scientist, not with the same celebrity status as in early 1900 though. I think the fact that a lot of what we do is more complicated and nitty gritty. The days of the Big and Simple idears in tune with our cultural world view are over and done. I would also point out that a cultural bias is at play here, in south korea for example some scientist have achieved something like rock star status. Case in point the (bogus) stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk.

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