This year, science made a killing at the box office. Moviegoers didn’t just head to theaters to see glitzy special effects (okay, maybe a little); they wanted relatable glimpses of great minds, a peek at the human traits that made eccentric, world-changing geniuses tick.
That’s because, increasingly, scientists like Stephan Hawking and Alan Turing mean more to us than their breakthroughs. They’re the faces of entire theories, movements, and cultures – a rising trend Declan Fahy dubs “the celebrity scientist.”
“You start out as a recognized expert in your field,” Fahy, an assistant professor at American University, explains. “Then there’s a moment when you shift from that professional culture to popular culture.”
Thanks to the media, some scientists have garnered a tremendous amount of public admiration.
“Fame has always been there in science,” Fahy says. “What has changed is the media itself. It’s more powerful, more pervasive, more central in cultural life.”
Now, science has personality: String theorist Brian Green wrote an NYT Bestseller; thousands watch Adam Savage explain physics on Myth Busters; children everywhere perk up when their teacher slides in a Bill Nye VHS tape.
“Public TV sees these gifted communicators as people who can be a conduit for public understanding…as exciting, passionate, knowledgeable experts who can speak to broad audiences and bring them in to science.”
Fahy cites Carl Sagan of “Cosmos” as this trend’s founding father. A regular guest on Johnny Carson and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Sagan turned “Cosmos” into “this odyssey of his personality, his science, and the way he saw the world.”
It was Sagan, Margaret Mead, and Paul Ehrlich who helped frame science as the sexy, monumental, and controversial subject it’s seen as today. These key players sparked a popular interest that, according to Fahy, has skyrocketed since the ‘70s.
“They were keenly aware of the rising power of the media,” Fahy says. “They saw an opportunity there to influence public debate about science and, crucially, to influence policy discussions.”
Fahy believes there are a few key criteria in earning “celebrity scientist” status: the merging of the public and private self, the symbolization of a larger, more abstract idea, and good marketing and promotion.
Fahy says this relatively-new aspect of pop culture – the once-maligned “Sagan effect” – has never been more visible.
“In the past two decades, scientists have been urged to communicate. They really rely on the public for support and legitimacy.”
Paula Apsell, the Senior Executive Producer of NOVA, remembers watching the first celebrity scientists.
“There was a confluence of really good science programs,” she says, listing Dr. Jonathan Miller’s “The Body in Question,” philosopher Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man,” and, of course, “Cosmos.”
“It really confirmed my own personal desire to be a science journalist.”
Apsell perceives a “huge difference in attitude” towards science since then, agreeing with Fahy’s claim that scientists have become aware of their responsibility to an info-hungry public – and they’re rising to the occasion.
“They know that it’s part of their job to participate, and they do so much more willingly,” she says.
“Younger scientists have had it inculcated into them that talking about their work in a clear way, without jargon, is very important.”
Though Apsell warns against the tabloidization of hard sciences – setting up grandiose expectations that can’t be fulfilled – she still sees the celebrity scientist as a spoonful of sugar.
“A lot of people believe that scientists are unrelateable. Now, they’re much less afraid to reveal who they are as human beings.”