Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Scientists as celebs?

The interview that started it all
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg for the Observer.

One of the commenters for the online version remarked 'If only the world took more interest in Physics Nobel Laureates and less interest in celebrity lives/murders or royal baby bumps.' Ah, so true. And I couldn't help thinking what a science version of the celebrity gossip magazine Heat - perhaps called Thermodynamics! - would be like.

I think, in all fairness to our favourite scientists, it would be rather dull. The commenter was making the point that scientists are more worthy than celebrities because they have actually done something amazing, rather than just being known for being known.

However, if you turn this around, you can see there's a fatal flaw in the reasoning that would condemn Thermodynamics! before it got off the ground. Because, on the whole, we don't know scientists. It's not that they don't have their fair share of juicy life stories, triumphs and disasters. Just take a look at a biography of Richard Feynman, for instance. But the reason people want to read Heat magazine is that these are stories about people they feel they know. People they would recognize if they saw them on the street. It's the modern day equivalent of the latest village tittle tattle. But the fact is, we don't know scientists. To be honest, I had no idea what Steven Weinberg looked like before this week. So why would we care?

It's a human thing, I afraid. Of course there are scientists etc. we know off the TV - they could feature in Thermodynamics!... but only again because we know them, not because of their scientific achievements. Can any Brian Cox fan tell me about a single significant piece of science he has done? I thought not.

Sadly, it's an exercise that's doomed to failure. But it was fun to think about it.

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