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The Rise of the New Celebrity Scientists

By Domanique Jordan

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Photo by Liam Daniel © 2014 Universal Pictures International

Are you wondering how a biopic about a scientist, The Theory of Everything, garnered five Oscar nominations – or even got made in the first place? Declan Fahy explains it all in his latest book, The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and Into the Limelight. He will discuss the book at the February 24 SOC Faculty Research and Project Forum. 

SOC graduate student Domanique Jordan had the opportunity to talk to Fahy about his book and the portrayal of scientists in the 21st century. 

DJ: In your book, The New Celebrity Scientists, you profile eight celebrity scientists and investigate how they achieved celebrity in the United States and internationally. One of them is Stephen Hawking, whose biopic has been nominated for five Oscars. What do you think of the film? 

DF: I thought The Theory of Everything was excellent, so good in fact I wrote a piece about how it shattered a cultural myth about Hawking: that he was, as some journalists put it, as a pure mind or cerebral creature. In the film we got to see a portrait of Hawking that is often missing from media portrayals: the human story behind the public narrative we all know -- how he overcame huge challenges to contribute to physics and write A Brief History of Time.

In my book, I trace the trajectory of Hawking's career back to the early 1970s when he was first profiled in science magazines, showing how his image changed over time –often quite dramatically. The Theory of Everything is but one of many, many portrayals of Hawking I examine that have impacted on how –often with his own input –he was molded into the most famous scientist of the modern era. It was not only his science that made him a star. The media made Hawking famous.

DJ: How did you choose to focus on the specific scientists in your book? 

DF: First, I wanted to get to the heart of the idea of scientific celebrity. What is it? How does it occur? What is its impact? What does scientific celebrity say about us, about science, about society? 

To try and answer these questions, I chose to analyze scientists who have been on the public radar in the US and UK for several decades. I believe these figures are among the most telling, most revealing, most instructive examples of the phenomenon of scientific fame. Second—and this is a personal motivation—I first started reading the works of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, Brian Greene, James Lovelock, and Susan Greenfield as a journalism undergrad. Their writing shaped my interest in science and helped set me on the path to being a science writer. In return, I've always wanted to write about them.

DJ: What was the main motivation behind writing this book?

DF: Before I went to graduate school, I was a journalist—and I noticed a peculiar trend. Reporters often portrayed complex events through the prism of personality. That is, the journalists put a human face on complex ideas. They wrapped their explanations of complicated political, economic and social issues around particular personalities. I wondered if this was the case in science. I went back to graduate school to find out, and my research eventually became an early version of the book. Based on the evidence I found, some scientists, including the eight I profile, have come to personify the scientific enterprise in our media saturated age. For example, when Stephen Jay Gould died in 2002, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph wrote: "For Americans, Gould's heavy-lidded eyes and bushy moustache represented the public face of science."

DJ: The book's subtitle is Out of the Lab and Into the Limelight. I remember scientists being portrayed as "mad,"laughing maniacally over their inventions. How has the portrayal of scientists changed in the 21st century?

DF: Portrayals are changing. I also wrote about this recently in an article about the rise of the scientist as Hollywood hero. Consider the recent film Interstellar: All the protagonists are scientists seeking to save humanity. Consider CSI: All the main characters use forensic science to solve murders. Consider the film Contagion: The heroes are epidemiologists that halt a viral pandemic. The mad scientist stereotype is still around, still laughing over their inventions in their basements, I guess—but thankfully there are lots of other scientists in the media mix. These include real, smart, passionate, engaging scientists. Neil deGrasse Tyson is no mad scientist, right? Neither is Steven Pinker. Nor is Richard Dawkins.

DJ: Many students have never heard about science journalism. What is the most attractive feature of this field for students who may be interested in it?

DF: I don't know if students have never heard of science journalism, but they and the rest of the public certainly consume lots of it. Think about all the stories in the daily news about health, diet, fitness, vaccines, pollution, climate change, drinking water, psychology, genetically modified foods, energy, fracking, sustainability—and, most recently, the science of deflated footballs. There's a lot of it out there. 

I believe the most attractive feature for students is that, even if they have no science background, even if they never become science reporters, even if they have little interest in science, I can 100 percent guarantee they will report on scientific findings or ideas in their careers. So the knowhow that goes into becoming good science reporters will help them become better journalists overall.

DJ: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

DF: I'd like them to see something so familiar as celebrity in a different way. I hope the [February 24 Faculty Forum] and book show that it is not just singers, actors, and athletes that become celebrities. Ours is a celebrity culture. When scientists are celebrities, science has a cultural force. Figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins circulate scientific ideas and concepts through popular culture. In the process, they shape public discussion around science-based controversies, such as evolution and intelligent design. They are public faces of science and they have a vital public role.