Hard-Rockin’ Physicists

The prolific Bora at A Blog Around the Clock is looking for the rock stars of science, as part of a long chain of people picking up this quote from Morgan Spurlock:

We’ve started to make science and empirical evidence not nearly as important as punditry–people wusing p.r.-speak to push a corporate or political agenda. I think we need to turn scientists back into the rock stars they are.

In physics, we’re ahead of the game, already having two actual rock stars working in the field. And how do you count the Hong Kong Cavaliers?

Then again, maybe they’re looking for a serious answer… (Below the fold.)

Bora offers a number of interesting thoughts about what it might mean for a scientist to be a rock star, settling on:

What I take it to mean is a scientist who did or discovered something really important and whose name is, thus, as well known as any movie star or rock star. A household name. Someone whose pronouncements on any and every topic would be as widely reported by the media and as widely repeated by the regular folks as pronouncements by Brittney Spears (“Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.”).

He then goes on to note that while we may have had a few of those in the past– Einstein being the best example– we don’t seem to have many (or, possibly, any) these days.

Of course, it’s important to note at this point that we don’t really have rock stars the way we used to. I watched a bit of the Scorsese-produced Bob Dylan documentary a while back, and one of the most interesting bits was a large chunk of press conference footage, in which serious-looking reporters in dark suits asked Dylan serious questions about what he thought about all sorts of things (and received flippant answers in return). He was treated remarkably seriously, as if they were really taking that “voice of a generation” thing seriously.

You don’t get that much any more. You get the occasional widely-reported political pronouncement from one star or another, but with rare exceptions, those interviews are conducted by the entertainment media, for the entertainment media, and nobody else pays much attention. The Britney Spears line Bora quotes didn’t make much of a splash outside the circle of people who are already political obsessives.

Even a remarkable event like the concert tour in 2004 where Bruce Springsteen and a host of other bands did shows with the explicit aim of turning out young voters to oust Bush was reported as a sort of “talking dog” story– look at those rock stars, thinking they can influence politics, aren’t they cute? Thirty or forty years ago, it would’ve been touted as an epochal event, but now, it’s a footnote (again, except to political obsessives).

The problem is, pop culture has really fragmented in recent years. There are still a few truly mass phenomena, but even big stars today aren’t as widely known and recognizable as the big stars of the past. I read a fair number of music magazines, and while I know his name, I couldn’t pick Jay-Z out of a lineup. I might barely be able to recognize Kanye West, but I doubt it. They’re huge stars, in the hip-hop/rap community, but they just don’t regster for me. And while I can immediately recognize, say, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie or Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips, I’m willing to bet that the majority of my students wouldn;t be able to place either.

The days of the real pop megastar, whose comments about anything and everything are reported in the amss media, and taken seriously by large numbers of people, are probably over. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there aren’t rock star scientists the way there used to be.

Given the degraded modern definition of “rock star,” are there “rock star” scientists out there? Hawking is probably the closest thing we’ve got, because that wheelchair rig makes him instantly recognizable in an iconic sot of way. At a lower sort of level, in physics, somebody like Brian Greene might almost qualify– he’s sold a bazillion copies of that damn book, after all, and he’s been on tv.

But look on the bright side– having “rock star” scientists isn’t necessarily a good thing. I mean, think about the other things that rock stars are known for: Marriages you could time with a stopwatch. Rampant drug abuse. Temper tantrums over stupid trivia. Trouble with the law.

Maybe a lack of “rock star” scientists isn’t such a bad thing…

5 thoughts on “Hard-Rockin’ Physicists

  1. The problem is, pop culture has really fragmented in recent years. There are still a few truly mass phenomena, but even big stars today aren’t as widely known and recognizable as the big stars of the past.

    Given the fragmentation of culture, and the fact that everbody doesn’t experience the same events, mayby a “rock star isn’t what we need. Instead, what we probably need are lots and lots of science bloggers….

    Then we also need those science bloggers to blog about other things in their blogs, so that people will get tricked into reading them. Then they’ll accidentally learn things about science and what scientists are thinking.


  2. Carl Sagan still is a Rock Star to me. “Cosmos” is what made me want to go into Physics and Engineering (although my blogging still needs work).

  3. I don’t think in any field of science you can have “rockstars” after a certain point. Sure, we all know Newton and Darwin, but that’s because they basically started their respective fields. Einstein is probably the only scientist in the 20th century who most people can name. In science at least, unless you make some sort of HUGE discovery, you’re not going to get much recognition outside your community. A good case is probably Feynman, who is well known to anyone with an interest in physics, and most people in other sciences too. But if I ask a random person on the street, I doubt he would know.

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