15 July 2009

Do you know this man?

Recognize this nattily attired fellow? No cheating now!

Dave Gibbons
You don’t?

Even though he was responsible for one of Time magazine’s top 100 novels in 2005? Shouldn’t you know someone who was responsible for a major, critically acclaimed work of art that is credited with revolutionizing the medium?

I mention all this because in discussions about science, science outreach, science education, and all the various permutations thereof, it is often lamented that when asked to name a living scientist, the general public will often retreat to naming someone dead, or naming someone who isn’t a scientist. (Yeah, that’s right, I’m lookin’ at all you people who say, “Al Gore.”)

But maybe we have unrealistic expectations there. There are a lot of creators who have a huge impact on our world who don’t get a second glance as they walk down the street. Can you name a single living chef running a five star restaurant? Or a zillion other occupations? Can you name a single living speech therapist?

For that matter, I was browsing through a blog post and read that E.M. Izhikevich is “one of the most important people in neuroscience right now.” This surprised me just a little, since I do neurobiology, but I’d never heard of this person. Okay, neuroscience is a big field, and I’m in a tiny little patch of that big field, but still, I do try to keep up.

Maybe we should not expect scientists to be more famous than other professions. I’m reminded of Whoopi Goldberg, who at the end of end of Inside the Actor’s Studio, talked about fame: Fame was accidental, she said, and so it was unrealistic to have “Become a famous actor” as a goal. But she noted that fame had nothing to do with being a great actor.

Maybe we should concentrate on people knowing and enjoying the work, and not be trying to create a cult of personality around researchers. We ain’t never going to be rock stars. It’s not our job.

P.S. – For the record, the gentleman pictured is Dave Gibbons, the artist for The Watchmen.


Jacquelyn Gill said...

I'm not sure if what you've described here is really equivalent. Most people don't interact with 5-star chefs in their lifetime. Many people don't know what authors may look like, but they can still name one! Not all of us are going to be rockstars, and rightly so, but I do think the fact that most people can name actors, musicians, athletes, politicians, authors, and even chefs (if not 5-star ones) says something about our values as a society and scientists' success in reaching out to the public.

Zen Faulkes said...

Are there any stats available of how many people can name a living author? The number might be lower than you think.

And while people can name actors, I'll be few can name any other persons involved in making a movie. That's a huge number of people today who are invisible to the public eye. Movies (and, for that matter, comics) are a collaborative art form where almost everyone labours in obscurity. People know the end result, but not so much the personalities creating it.

In that sense, yes, I think they are rather like science. It's more important that people recognize the work than the people.