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?

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