Rock Stars of Science

Rock Stars of Science

Photograph: Geoffrey Beene Foundation's Rockstars of Science campaign/Ben Watts & Kurt Iswarienko

They may be masters of the mind, but can our heroes do anything about Brett Michaels’ strange finger problem?

GQ magazine in the United States recently published a set of glossy photographs featuring prominent scientists. These studio shots were funded by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation to raise awareness of the work of ‘scientific heroes’, and to encourage the young to consider careers in the sciences. The photographs had an additional gimmick – the scientists were posed next to celebrity rock stars such as Debbie Harry, Bret Michaels, and Timbaland. But does this kind of campaign break down barriers between science and the public by associating scientists with modern-day cultural icons? Or is this just another symptom of a modern-day obsession with celebrity?

A look into science communication history offers an interesting insight – and suggests that placing the scientist on an iconic pedestal may not be such a new idea.

Tyndall lecturing to the public – Royal Institution, 1870. London Illustrated News

In the nineteenth century, science communication was live and direct – more rock concert than album cover. Great communicators like Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall delivered their message in bravura lecture performances attended by the non-scientific public. This was helped by the fact that much scientific work remained explicable to the ordinary citizen. Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ had been a popular bestseller. But by the time of Planck and Einstein things were more complicated. Science was revered as the powerhouse of progress, but its work was now difficult to fathom. Scientists – flushed with success – increasingly withdrew into their labs, leaving the donkey work of communication to a growing popular science press.

Edison portrayed as a wizard: Cover of The Daily Graphic of New York, 9 July 1879.

The media, however, had their own imperatives. Rather than tangle with the details of scientific work, it was tempting for the popular press to describe a scientist using flattering heroic stereotype. The inventor Edison became a ‘wizard’, while Lord Kelvin was described as a ‘Napoleon of Natural Philosophy’. These stereotypes endowed science with a mysticism that increasingly demarcated the scientist from ordinary experience. The scientist had become an icon.

Iconic celebrity is fine as long as science keeps delivering and the grant cheques keep flowing. Yet public unease in the wake of controversies like BSE and Climategate require scientists to communicate their service and value to the public as fellow citizens. And there’s the problem. How does an icon suddenly descend from their pedestal to become “one of us” when required? The boundaries separating a hero from ordinary society  – once established – can be difficult to remove.

This, for me, is the well-meaning error at the heart of “Rock Stars of Science”. Comer talks of connecting the public and science through the portrayal of science as a rock icon. The idea is that by thinking of scientists as rock stars, we will be more inclined to identify with them as “one of us”. Yet I believe this confuses the role of celebrity in our society.

Rock icons are revered precisely because they are not one of us. They represent ‘the other’ – an alternative world of wild wealth, smashed hotel rooms and fast cars. We may aspire to a life like theirs – outside of our own mundane experience – but their exploits remain deliberately remote. Their lives are framed in terms of exclusivity, non-conformity and excess. A postmodern aristocracy.

This association with rock stars – far from connecting scientists to the rest of us  –demarcates science as an elite, remote practice. By standing close to the new aristocrats, science is making an implicit claim for separateness from ordinary experience. The eminent faces staring out as “Rock Stars of Science” do so from a behind a barrier more subtle and enduring than the camera might suggest.

Stephen McGann is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.