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A Brief History of Scientific Celebrity

Feature

Declan Fahy

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 39.4, July/August 2015

Science is personified by a handful of articulate, media-savvy scientists who stimulate new thinking, 
drive scientific controversies, enhance public understanding, mobilize social movements, 
and shape policy. To millions, these scientific celebrities are the public face of science.

“The

Charles Darwin was a master of public relations. While The Origin of Species swept through nineteenth-century culture, shattering the prevailing religious orthodoxy about the dawn of human life, Darwin cultivated his popular image. He distributed mass-produced photographs, signed autographs, collected songs and poems about himself, responded to his voluminous mail with pre-printed cards, refused most interviews, and avoided speaking before crowds where questions might catch him off-guard. He met author George Eliot and received an inscribed copy of Das Kapital from Karl Marx.

The theory of evolution by natural selection he outlined in his 1859 book coursed through Victorian society, spreading far beyond learned journals and professional societies. The general public could buy a low-cost edition of The Origin of Species. Magazines spread his image and ideas through popular culture, sometimes in strange ways. Caricaturists and cartoonists, for example, drew Darwin’s head—with its distinctive long beard and large dome of his skull—on the body of an ape. Darwin became public property. “Deep down,” wrote historian of science Janet Browne, “Darwin’s sons and daughters were forced to accept that he was not just their father. He belonged to everybody.” In his time, he was a scientific celebrity.

The great naturalist showed that fame, lasting fame, is never just the inevitable consequence of great achievement, even one as seismic as The Origin of Species. The world must hear about the achievement.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of the twentieth century’s most iconic scientist—physicist Albert Einstein. He personified science in mass culture, and he became a global symbol for the mind’s phenomenal power. He exploded into popular consciousness in 1919 after his general theory of relativity, which was nothing less than a new way of viewing the physics of the universe, was confirmed by two independent experiments during a solar eclipse. Afterward, Einstein received significant journalistic attention—“Revolution in Science. New Theory of the Universe,” reported The Times—but he vaulted to global celebrity two years later when he visited the United States to raise money and public awareness for Zionist causes.

The two-month visit in 1921 sparked a frenzy of public and media interest. The New York Times described a “man in a faded grey rain coat and a flopping black felt hat that nearly concealed the grey hair that straggled over his ears . . . But underneath his shaggy locks was a scientific mind whose deductions have staggered the ablest intellects of Europe.” The New York Evening Post described Einstein’s Berlin home, and detailed his love of Dostoyevsky, his working methods—lost in intense concentration in his room alone for three or four days—and his fondness for cigars. The American press, wrote scholar Marshall Missner, was “the instrument that made Einstein into a celebrity.”

On the back of his coverage, as relativity matched the mood of uncertainty that followed the savagery of World War I, Einstein became a global star. The London Palladium asked him to put on his own show. Girls in Geneva mobbed him. One tried to cut off a lock of his hair. Telescopes and towers were named in his honor, as were children and cigars. When he and his wife, Elsa, attended the 1931 premiere of City Lights, photographers snapped their picture on the red carpet alongside the film’s star, Charlie Chaplin. Abraham Pais, one of Einstein’s former colleagues and a historian of science, later wrote: “Einstein, creator of some of the best science of all time, is himself a creation of the media in so far as he is and remains a public figure.”

Since Einstein penetrated deep into popular culture in the early twentieth century, the mass media expanded dramatically. At the end of the century, the media were a center of public life and had enormous power. For most adults, the media were the source of most ideas and information about science and issues affected by science. In their myriad forms, the media disseminated information, shaped public opinion, conveyed ideas about how the world works, how the world can be experienced, how society is organized, and what issues matter for citizens and how these topics come to be viewed and understood in broad culture.

The media also focused overwhelmingly on individuals, leading to our pervasive celebrity culture where fame has become the most powerful way of understanding ideas in a complex world. Within this culture, a new type of scientist came out of the lab and into the limelight—the celebrity scientist.

These scientific stars gripped the public imagination, using their vast influence to stimulate new thinking, drive scientific controversies, enhance public understanding, mobilize social movements, and shape policy. In celebrity culture, they spoke for science in public. But more than that, their fame gave them power within science. Their stardom affected the inner workings of science, shaping the discovery of new knowledge about our natural world. Because of their profound ability to influence public life and professional research, the celebrity scientists constitute a new scientific elite.

FRED HOYLE AND CARL SAGAN: 
MASS MEDIA STARS

Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan.

In 1950, British astronomer Fred Hoyle became an emblematic figure in this new media age of science. That year, he delivered a series of BBC radio lectures on “The Nature of the Universe” that were so successful that listeners voted him Britain’s most popular broadcaster. In his soft Yorkshire accent, he clearly explained cosmology and evoked familiar domestic scenes to make complex science part of listeners’ everyday worlds. Even professional physicists stopped work and tuned in. The lectures were subsequently printed as The Nature of the Universe, which sold 77,000 copies in just six months, making it an early scientific best seller. 
Hoyle’s rise to stardom occured right at the beginning of a period historian of science Jon Agar called “the long sixties.” This era spanned roughly 1955 to 1975, and it featured a dramatic clash of ideas that transformed politics, divided society, and overhauled scientific life so radically that scholars called it a second scientific revolution, after the first in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that gave birth to the modern scientific enterprise.

Beginning in 1970, the amount of science reported in the media exploded. In the United States, the 1970s and 1980s saw the creation of science sections in dozens of newspapers across the country, the launch of multiple glossy popular science magazines, and the inauguration of a new weekly television series—Nova—devoted to science. Popular science books reached a significant point in the mid-1970s. Before then, there were rarely more than ten science titles on the New York Times best seller list each year. But afterward, there were rarely fewer than ten science titles each year. The situation in Britain was similar. Science flowed through popular culture.

Jacob Boronowski, The Ascent of Man

Television allowed scientists to speak to vast numbers of citizens. The BBC series The Ascent of Man told a science-based story of human history. Broadcast in Britain and the United States in the early 1970s, it was hosted by mathematician and intellectual Jacob Bronowski, who had written and spoken about science to wide audiences in magazines and on television long before the show granted him international prominence. During the same decade, across the Atlantic, a planetary scientist was proving himself an engaging media presence, a scientist who would became his era’s best-known public scientist: Carl Sagan.

Sagan symbolized an era when the television age met the space age. He was a planetary scientist at a time when space became a proxy battleground for rival Cold War superpowers. He was telegenic at a point where it was clear that television favored personalities, like him, who were articulate, attractive, eloquent, and enthusiastic. He was already well known at the end of the 1970s as a Pulitzer Prize–winning popular science writer who regularly explained astronomy to the hundreds of thousands of nightly viewers of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Carl Sagan often appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But when he unveiled the universe to half a billion viewers in the 1980 television series Cosmos, he was propelled to unprecedented global fame. Viewers in sixty nations followed the planetary scientist on his thirteen-part personal odyssey through eons of cosmological and human history. His spin-off book of the series, Cosmos, spent more than seventy weeks on The New York Times best seller list and earned him more than a million dollars in royalties. Time in 1980 featured Sagan on its cover and called him a “Showman of Science,” “the prince of popularizers,” “the nation’s scientific mentor to the masses,” and “America’s most effective salesman of science.”

A biographer of Sagan noted that the producer of Cosmos, Adrian Malone, vowed to “make Carl a star.” And indeed the show led to a surge in media and public attention to Sagan. Journalists reported on his personal life, writing about his trademark turtlenecks and his distinctive orange Porsche 914 with its license plate, PHOBOS, one of the moons of Mars. He had to cope with the women who appeared at studios demanding to see him, convinced he spoke directly to them through their television screens. He sometimes sat facing the wall in restaurants to avoid the stream of autograph hunters and well-wishers.

His celebrity brought lucrative rewards. As his biographers noted, the $2 million he received for Contact, his 1985 novel about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, was, at the time, the largest advance ever given by a publisher for a work not yet in manuscript form. It also brought him influence, granting him a public platform for his anti-nuclear advocacy, as he warned political leaders about the devastation that would occur in the radiation-soaked darkness of a global nuclear winter. Students who watched Cosmos wanted to become scientists. No modern scientist had yet achieved such reach, renown, and reputation.

But his fame damaged Sagan’s standing in the scientific world. Harvard denied his bid for tenure, a lifetime appointment that a university awards to accomplished scholars. The nation’s most prestigious scientific society, the National Academy of Sciences, rejected the possibility of his becoming a member. A number of influential peers dismissed him as a mere popularizer and not a real scientist, someone who spent too much time on The Tonight Show and too little time engaged in the painstaking grind of observing the planets.

He came to starkly illustrate a feature of modern scientific fame, a feature that Michael Shermer later called the “Sagan Effect”: the perception among researchers that the level of a scientist’s public fame is in direct opposition to the quality of their research work. Popular scientists, in effect, were not seen as strong scientists. Before his media career, however, Sagan established a sound reputation as a researcher, known for his path-breaking work that showed Venus was boiling hot and violent windstorms raged across the surface of Mars. He accumulated 500 total career publications—an astonishing rate of productivity that averaged one published academic paper each month. The Sagan Effect, for Sagan, was false.

Not that Sagan was the only scientist to spot the media’s enhanced power. He was one of several scientists in U.S. public life in the sixties and seventies who saw the media as a way to influence public and political attitudes toward science. Rae Goodell wrote about these figures—such as anthropologist Margaret Mead, biologist Paul Ehrlich, and chemist Linus Pauling—in her 1977 book The Visible Scientists. She described how they broke with conventional ways to shape science policy. They bypassed the traditional ways that experts gave behind-the-scenes advice to policymakers. They went directly to the public instead, using the mass media to put science on the public agenda and therefore shape citizen attitudes and, as a result, affect science policy. They showed that the individual scientist working in a cutting-edge area of science, once they were sufficiently articulate, controversial, and distinctive, could attract and hold the media spotlight.

These visible scientists ruptured the conventional ways researchers earned scientific and public attention. As described by a founding father of the sociology of science, Robert K. Merton, an individual scientist’s reputation was traditionally established exclusively within science. A scientist gained recognition only after their published research was validated by their peers. The more and better their research, the more their reputation grew and the greater their status in science became. The ultimate accolade was the Nobel Prize, the public symbol of scientific excellence, a public award bestowed on those researchers deemed to have produced the world’s best science. But Sagan and other visible scientists had a reputation that was in part created outside science. As well as scientific credentials, what also mattered was how he or she communicated, how engaging they were, how their science tied to public issues, and how interesting they were as personalities.

A NEW CELEBRITY CULTURE

As media personalities, the visible scientists were early actors in what has become a pervasive celebrity culture. Today the media concentrate on personalities, representing complex events and issues through the prism of personalities. As cultural historian Leo Braudy noted in his history of fame, The Frenzy of Renown, in our celebrity culture “human faces are plastered on every idea and event” and “complex phenomena wear the reduced features of emblematic individuals.” Critics and commentators have lamented this shift in culture, viewing the media’s obsession with celebrity as the triumph of the trivial, the elevation of the inane, the proof of a debased and dumbed-down culture.

But there is a more positive view of fame, one that sees great power and importance that celebrities hold in our media-saturated public life. For Braudy, fame “sits at the crossroads of the familiar and the unprecedented, where personal psychology, social context, and historical tradition meet.” Celebrities have power because they vividly represent ideas, issues, and ideologies, allowing people to visualize and make sense of abstract concepts. As the author David Foster Wallace wrote about sports stars, “Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable.”

Scholars of communication and popular culture, moreover, have defined celebrity in a technical sense. Celebrity is a phenomenon formed as a result of three interconnected processes. The first process can be seen when someone is portrayed in media coverage as a distinctive individual whose public and private lives merge. (When Sagan died, The Australian said he had the good luck to have “a compelling presence” and “good looks.”)

The second is when a person becomes a cultural commodity, used to sell his or her own work, but also potentially as a way to advertise other cultural products. (The New York Times said Cosmos focused so intensely on its charismatic host that the show could have been subtitled: “The Selling of Carl Sagan.”)

The third—and most complex but arguably central—process concerns the way the person comes to represent and embody ideas, ideologies, and processes. Sagan embodied for many the idea of the scientist, the heroic seeker after truth who sought to overthrow ignorance and superstition with rationality, showing how science was, in his words, a candle in a demon-haunted world. (When he died, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution said: “For the common man, his was the face of science.”)

THE NEW CELEBRITY SCIENTISTS

By the time Sagan passed away in 1996, scientists were described in the media using the language of celebrity. In 1997, Vogue magazine said serious science had become glamorous, and Current Biology said scientists were portrayed as “stylish and even sexy.” The Independent later argued that the turn of the twenty-first century saw science dominated by its “media superstars.” In this cultural atmosphere, where celebrity became cultural currency, a small handful of North American and British scientists came to dominate public discussion of science, publishing best-selling titles, receiving six-figure advances for books about esoteric topics like quantum physics, producing science documentaries, contributing to late night talk shows, appearing in glossy magazines, being photographed by celebrity photographers, and lobbying parliaments. Among the star scientists who emerged in this period were:

Stephen Hawking STEPHEN HAWKING
The cosmologist became the world’s best-known contemporary scientific celebrity after the success of A Brief History of Time, first published in 1988, brought cosmology to millions of readers worldwide. But his subsequent public career has been marked by a succession of private revelations, recycled versions of his best-selling popular book, and often-caustic public evaluations of his scientific reputation.
Richard Dawkins RICHARD DAWKINS
Called "Mr. Public Science himself," "Professor Evolution," and "Professor Science," the evolutionist and writer fashioned his fame over his decades-long public career as strident advocate of evolution, combative defender of science, and relentless critic of religion.
Neil Degrasse Tyson NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON
The director of the Harden Planetarium in New York became the contemporary heir to Carl Sagan and is the United States's unofficial chief public spokesman for science and space science, shaping public attitudes, science policy, and the future of his field.
STEPHEN JAY GOULD STEPHEN J GOULD
The late paleontologist, who one critic described as a "learned Harvard professor and baseball-loving everyman," enthused millions about evolution, battled creationism, and tried to reconcile science and religion.

These selected scientists exploited and managed their fame in different ways. Dawkins used his fame to move far from the laboratory and become the head of a new social movement of atheists. Pinker and Gould managed the difficult task of being famous public intellectuals and prolific university-based researchers. Greenfield embraced fame and its advantages for raising the public profile and reputations of scientists. Lovelock reluctantly embraced stardom after he was shut out of mainstream science. Greene uses his fame as a passport to move seamlessly between the worlds of science and entertainment, while Tyson shows the power of a public scientist, one who has not got a strong record of scientific research, to influence public understanding, scientific debate, and public policy.

Together they are emblems of a new era of science, one embedded in the dynamics of the media, the demands of celebrity culture, and the vicissitudes of public life. They vividly embody the new era of the celebrity scientist.

Steven Pinker STEVEN PINKER
Once described as "famously rock'n'roll with his long, curly hair and his cowboy boots," the Harvard cognitive scientist explained the biological roots of language and argued controversially that biology plays a major role in molding not just human behavior but human society and culture.
Brian Greene BRIAN GREENE
The physicist is the public face of string theory, the novel branch of physics that captured the turn-of-the-century scientific and public imaginations, and the scientist who can move seamlessly between speaking at academic conferences and starring in The Big Bang Theory, without losing his scientific status.
Susan Greenfield SUSAN GREENFIELD
The former Oxford professor of pharmacology and member of the U.K. House of Lords demonstrates the contentious portrayal of female scientists - she has been called a "mini-skirted media celebrity" - and the ability of famous scientists to raise and discuss uncertain science-based social problems, such as the claimed harmful effects that screen technologies have on children.
James Lovelock JAMES LOVELOCK
Called the "intellectual guru of the environmental movement," the independent scientist worked for decades in two isolated English farmhouses, and showed with his controversial Gaia theory of the living earth that a popular science book can not only influence science but can also spark an entire belief system and come to powerfully symbolize the current climate crisis.

Topics: science celebrities

Declan Fahy

Declan Fahy's photo

Declan Fahy is an assistant professor in the School of Communication, American University, Washington, D.C. He holds a doctorate in communication from Dublin City University, and he has published scholarly papers in a number of journalism, science, and communications journals. The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight, is his first book.