Press and Pop Culture

Tales of Scientific Heroes are Just Celebrity Biographies

Roger Highfield has attracted attention lately for his promotion not only science heroes but also his claims that we, the public, should revere these science heroes. In a recent lecture, he goes so far as to say our modern, democratic society depends on such heroes and our recognition that they of their heroic status: “For the sake of a functioning democracy we need [scientific] heroes” (at 7:22 in the video). Highfield’s essay at the Edge says much the same while attempting to respond to earlier critiques: The Decline of the Scientific Hero.1

While I don’t think we need science heroes for a functioning democracy, if writers want to distort the past for their own purposes—just as Hollywood distorts the laws of physics for its purposes—so be it. Just admit what you are doing.

Recently, I found myself in a small town in Arizona with little to do, so I stopped by the library bookshop to see if there was anything interesting for sale. Given the demographics, I was not surprised to see shelves packed with used romance novels and biographies of famous people—mostly celebrities and royalty along with a smattering of politicians. I was at first surprised to see a book titled Science, Technology, and Society. The People Behind the Science amongst the other biographies.

Katherine Cullen’s misleadingly titled Science, Technology, and Society
Katherine Cullen’s misleadingly titled Science, Technology, and Society

Cullen’s book is less about “people behind the science” than the heroes who did the science. Science, Technology, and Society is a grab bag of heroes who didn’t fit into her other books—organized around chemistry, biology, physics, earth sciences, weather and climate, marine science—than it is a study of science, technology, and society.

Cullen’s book is a grab bag of science heroes.
Cullen’s book is a grab bag of science heroes.

Cullen’s book is not about people, it’s about heroes. It is a series of short, celebratory biographies. What struck me initially as a mistake—shelving a book about science, technology, and society with the biographies—came to look more like a brilliant if vaguely subversive effort by the women at that library bookshop to put the book where it belongs, with the other celebrity biographies.2

1While I reject much of what Highfield says in his lecture (particularly his cavalier attitude toward historical expertise, methods, and ways of knowing) he rightly points out that historians of science don’t understand how to speak to a broader audience but we complain when non-experts run roughshod over our subject (see Lynn Nyhart’s comments in last January’s HSS Newsletter).

2I realize that Cullen’s Science, Technology, and Society might accidentally have been shelved with the biographies by the workers there or by somebody browsing the books, but I am going to keep telling myself that the women working at that little branch library intended it to be next to the biography of Lady Di.