In January, before lecturing at a retirement home in Maryland, I talked to an elderly physicist named Joe who told me about the first time he met his mother-in-law, decades ago.
Joe’s wife had no idea how to describe to her mother what a physicist actually does. He wasn’t a bricklayer, and he wasn’t a fireman, and he wasn’t a salesman—any of which would have been self-explanatory.
“Mom,” she asked, “have you ever wondered why the sun comes up every morning and sets at night?”
“No,” her mother answered.
“Have you ever wondered why, if you pick up a rock and let it go, it falls down?”
“Uh, okay. Well ... have you heard of Einstein?”
“Yes!” her mother replied enthusiastically.
“Joe does what he does.”
And that’s how Joe endeared himself to his new mother-in-law—not through the importance of his work, not through their shared interests, but because of his similarity to a celebrity.
Because Einstein was a legitimate scientist who made brilliant discoveries, some may not think he should be classified as a celebrity. But that’s exactly what makes him a celebrity—the fact that everyone has heard of him. Einstein wasn’t a scientist celebrity because he hosted a television show or wore designer eveningwear. He was a celebrity because there was something iconic about him. There was something special that even Joe’s mother-in-law recognized, and that has made him pretty much the only scientist represented in Microsoft Office clip art. (Unless you count Dr. Clippy: “It looks like you’re typing a grant application. Would you like help?”)
Being the most famous scientist is a triumph within a nondominant subset.
Yet today—more than 60 years since Einstein’s death, despite living in possibly the most celebrity-filled and fame-obsessed culture in human history—where are all the celebrity scientists?
If you don’t believe me about the scarcity of celebrity scientists, ask nonscientific friends to name one who’s alive today.
“Bill Nye,” they’ll say.
“Great,” you'll tell them. “Name another.”
Next they’ll suggest Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Dawkins. Maybe they’ll say Stephen Hawking, then pause to think about whether he’s actually a celebrity or simply well-known, and then pause again to think about whether he’s alive. (He is.)
Before they speak again, remind them that Adam and Jamie from MythBusters don’t count.
Last year, Declan Fahy, a communications lecturer at Dublin City University, argued in his book titled The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight, that, for good or ill, celebrity scientists are more abundant today than ever. He names scientists like psychologist Steven Pinker, physicist Brian Greene, and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield to illustrate his point. There’s just one problem: To me, that definition of “celebrity” is pretty rinky-dink.
As worthy as these scientists’ scientific and public achievements are, when the average person can name maybe five science celebrities at the most—but could probably name more than 1000 nonscience celebrities (I’m just guessing, but if you have a few hours, try it)—it’s time to admit that we’re using the word “celebrity” differently than the rest of the world is. Being the most famous scientist is a triumph within a nondominant subset, like being the tallest kindergartner, or the most honest politician, or the wealthiest postdoc.
In October, after giving a talk at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, I spoke to the organizer of a statewide science festival. She said they were hoping to find a famous female science celebrity to headline their next event. It had to be a science-y woman—not necessarily even an actual scientist—that the average Nebraskan might have heard of. But they just couldn’t think of any.
“Uh,” I said, a little ashamed of the idea I was about to suggest but aware that it was the kind of suggestion she wanted, “how about—”
Before I could finish my sentence, she finished it for me: “And Kari from MythBusters is too expensive.”
I started wondering how people become celebrities in the first place and why they’re so interesting. Why do we care about someone we’ve never met, whose existence is unfathomably different from ours? Why, for the love of all that’s holy, would anyone ever read Us Weekly or People? (And why would they call the magazines Us and People when they’re clearly about people who are nothing like us?)
To find out, I decided to read an issue of Us Weekly. Okay, I didn’t read it, I glanced at the website for 30 seconds, because that was all I could take without wanting to pluck my traitorous eyeballs from their miserable sockets.
The general frivolity of what I saw—“news” about what celebrities wore, when they entered or left rehab, and how they reacted to each other’s misdemeanor arrests—makes it hard to argue that science celebrities would do science a favor. But the importance of celebrity scientists is not just about narcissism and putting a public face on a field that, many would say, requires no public face because it encompasses The Truth. Nor is it about a need to keep science relevant and understandable—there are plenty of good science communicators who do that but aren’t “celebrities” per se.
It’s about demonstrating that scientists can be celebrities, and that we can earn admiration and fascination in the same way other human beings can. That the Kardashians can dominate every headline without seemingly having a function in the world—and, sometimes, so can we. That people (in-laws included) want to know more about us.
So let’s help elevate scientists to celebrity status by doing what Joe’s wife did. I’ll start: I conduct experiments to answer questions about human biology. So, in other words … shoot, there’s no way around this.
I do what the MythBusters do.