Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Notes And Comments

Farewell to the Olympian Scientist

Brendan P. Foht

Illustration of Stephen Hawking by Naddi.

Maybe science now instills a sense of humility, and even a sober intellectual recognition that not all the questions have answers.

You would have plenty of company if you drew a blank if asked to name a living scientist: A 2017 survey found that only 19 percent of Americans could do so. Stephen Hawking, who died last March, was the scientist most likely to be mentioned by survey respondents, followed by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss popularizers such as Tyson and Nye as belonging to a different class of scientist from that of the Nobel Prize–winning Hawking. Tyson has not been involved in astrophysics research for years, and Nye has never been a working scientist. Science popularizers rather than popular scientists, they are known for their publicity efforts on behalf of science rather than their scientific genius or attainments.

Figures such as Hawking or his predecessors in theoretical physics—most famously Albert Einstein, but also the freewheeling Richard Feynman and the polymathic and tragic J. Robert Oppenheimer—inspired awe for their intellectual achievements. They were seen as geniuses—not in the loose sense that might be applied to racehorses, but in the stricter sense of possessing intellectual powers far above those of the mass of humanity.

In recognition of their intelligence, the general public tended to take the pronouncements of such figures very seriously, even on issues beyond their scientific expertise. Einstein opined on world government. Oppenheimer tried to forestall a nuclear arms race. And Hawking spoke publicly about the existential threats facing humanity, ranging from artificial intelligence to unfettered capitalism. What made it possible for those twentieth-century scientists to become so widely respected for their genius, and why are there so few scientists today who reach such levels of fame?

It’s not that science has run out of newsworthy achievements. Many Americans will remember the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle,” just a few years ago. But who could be said to deserve the credit? The work behind this milestone accomplishment was a monumentally collaborative effort of experimental physicists from around the world. The paper announcing the discovery had nearly ten full pages of contributing authors, and was “dedicated to the memory of our ATLAS colleagues who did not live to see the full impact and significance of their contributions to the experiment.” (ATLAS is an acronym for one of the particle detector experiments.) In an age of such extensively collaborative science, no single figure acquires Olympian stature or recognition in the public eye.

Another explanation for the decline of the scientific celebrity may have to do with the supplanting of physics—the science of geniuses like Einstein and Newton—by biology as the cynosure of the sciences. This shift is represented by one of biology’s would-be celebrity scientists, J. Craig Venter, who in 2004 declared that “if the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century will be the century of biology.” Venter is probably best known as the leader of the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, as well for his sensationalistic (and highly exaggerated) claim to have “created life” in the form of a “synthetic bacterial cell” in 2010. But even the relentlessly self-promoting Venter is hardly a household name.

Nonetheless, Venter was right to say that biology has captured the public imagination in the twenty-first century—Americans were certainly quite interested in stem cells and cloning at the turn of the millennium, when they debated whether research on embryonic stem cells was a source of great hope or a troubling violation of the sanctity of human life. But few Americans, then or now, could identify James Thomson, the scientist who discovered the cells that were the subject of so much controversy. A discovery like stem cells can inspire gratitude and excitement, or suspicion and disapproval, depending on one’s moral point of view, but it doesn’t spark the kind of intellectual interest or awe that was inspired by grand feats of physics such as Einstein’s general theory of relativity or Hawking’s cosmological insights into the nature of black holes. Consider a biologist whose name might be a bit more familiar to Americans: Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. While we certainly feel indebted to this benefactor of humankind, the story of how he made his discovery—by noticing that fungus he had accidentally allowed to grow on a petri plate was keeping the growth of bacteria at bay—hardly inspires awe for Fleming’s intellect.

Complaining about the antibiology bias extant in his day, evolutionary theorist Ernst Mayr wrote in 1969 that “philosophy of science” books dealt, in fact, only with the “philosophy of physics,” neglecting the more historical and particularistic science of biology in favor of analyzing the natural laws and mathematical theories found in physics. Mayr was certainly right that biology deserved a different kind of philosophical analysis than physics. But it’s understandable that philosophers would have a special respect for the intellectual achievements of physics. The elegant formulation of laws and theories that explain the fundamental features of the universe are genuinely impressive in a way that other sciences just can’t match. Biology may offer ever more detailed descriptions of living things, but its explanations for the big questions about life remain unsatisfying. There are no elegant laws to account for the growth of an embryo into an adult, and while the theory of evolution gives something of an account of what the tree of life looks like and how different branches have emerged, it’s far from a satisfying explanation for the whole history of life. Perhaps there is, in reality, no deep order to the tree of life, but that’s not a truth that generates wonder at the human capacity to know the secrets of nature. Rather, it may imbue us with a sense of humility, and even a sober intellectual recognition that not all the questions have answers.

Although the cult of genius surrounding men like Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, and Oppenheimer seems to have disappeared, we can probably better appreciate the collective enterprise of science without the worship of its Great Men. With the ascendance of the intellectually humble but practically useful science of biology over the lofty and theoretically ambitious science of physics, we may also acquire a more realistic appreciation of science as less a Promethean endeavor than a very human one, serving human goals and aspirations instead of transcending them.