Thursday, October 30, 2014

Do scientists have heroes? Should we?

Yes, science has Nobel prizes and MacArthur 'genius' grants and NIH-funded "Centers of Excellence" and highly selective journals, among other ways of plucking ordinary people from the scientific masses and turning them into heroes.  Or at least treating them as such.  Purported major journals are now deifying the greats and near-greats with interviews and splashy stories that match what can be found in mags near the checkout counter.  We've got lists ranking scientists by number of Twitter followers.  But is this an important part of science? Can science proceed without this?  Can it proceed with it -- could this hero-creation side of science be a distraction?

Charles Darwin

Appropriately I suppose, because of the source of inspiration for this post, it requires a bit of name dropping: I was chatting a few days ago with an old friend of mine, Penn Jillette, magician etc., when the subject of heroes came up.  He asked if I'd seen what some famous guys (he named them) had said about a thing we were talking about (which I won't name because which famous guys he was talking about is irrelevant to this story, and the subject might make it obvious), and I said no.  I said I needed heroes less and less as I got older, because I can see the flaws and limits in their science, as we all have, relative to their reputations.  He said it was the opposite for him; he needs them more now.  For inspiration.  But he agreed with me about the flaws in the arguments of the people he'd mentioned.

I thought about this for a bit, intrigued by the idea of scientific heroes.  I told Penn that I was thinking of writing something about how my being a scientist and him being an artist/performer might affect why we differ so much on heroes, but that I didn't really understand what he'd meant.  I said I could imagine what he meant and use his name, or imagine what he meant and not use his name, or he could explain a bit more about what he meant and tell me whether or not to use his name.  He said he had no clue what he meant, and I could decide whether to use his name after I wrote whatever I wrote.  That helped.  Some.

I've known Penn for a long time, so I can think back to when we were young, and find differences between us even way back then.  (Well, other than almost everything.)  I do have to say, though, that most of what I say here is pretty much a guess, not vetted or confirmed by Penn.

Marie Curie; Wikipedia

Penn, of Penn & Teller, is a magician, author, filmmaker, musician, atheist, political commentator, and much more.  Certainly a lot of people look up to him, listen to his opinions, read his books, watch his TV shows and movies. In a what-comes-around-goes-around kind of way, I imagine he's a lot of people's hero.  He probably has inspired a bunch of kids to grow up and do the best they could.

Penn probably was a performer before I knew him, but he certainly was in high school.  He was wowed and inspired by a ton of other performers, and as he said, he has tried hard to be as good or better than people who wowed him when he was young.  I remember spending many hours listening to him practice sounding like Neil Young on the guitar, sitting in a chair by the window of his room.  But he loved a lot of musicians.  And more; comedians, writers, old Vaudevillians, quirky teachers even.  They taught him a lot, and set standards that he wanted to meet or exceed.

Magicians, artists, musicians, build their skills and develop their own voice by spending many many hours -- 10,000, according to lore -- replicating what others have done.  Saw a woman in half, copy the drawings of master artists, play notes written by others until they sound like so many musicians have played before.  Even surgeons learn their craft this way.

Harry Houdini; Wikimedia Commons

I've been a scientist almost as long as Penn has been a performer, though I didn't know in high school where I was headed.  Still, even if I had known I was eventually going to be writing about evolution, it would have done nothing for me to sit at my desk and copy paragraphs out of The Origin of Species, or, say, try to replicate Darwin's handwriting, or reproduce Mendel's experiments with peas.

Of course, science is the accumulation of knowledge more than the accumulation of specific skill sets.  Yes, we have to know how to pipet or follow a lab protocol, but we needn't spend 10,000 hours sitting in a chair by our bedroom window practicing how to pipet like Madame Curie, or Barbara McClintock.

Ken had a student once who was stunned when he learned in class that while biologists respect Darwin, we never go back and check the Origin to see if what we think is true really was, the way some fundamentalists check the Bible for truth.

So, what is it about a scientist that could be heroic?  To me, maybe being able to look at the same data everyone else is looking at, pull together what look like misfitting pieces, and draw a new and different conclusion?  What Thomas Kuhn called a 'paradigm shift', but these turn out to be a lot rarer than most scientists seem to hope.  Not life-saving, necessarily, but stunning, if that counts as heroic.  But one can't really aspire to this.  It just happens.  And this isn't what most Nobel prizes are rewarded for.

A lot of scientists become public figures, and then perhaps someone's hero, because they've done good science.  Or because they write popular science books.  But, to me, this doesn't imbue them with special knowledge about questions that science can't answer -- religion, the existence of free will and so on -- or with deeper insight into non-scientific issues; politics, ethics, just war.  So I don't turn to them for answers or even for insights particularly.  And, good science takes a whole community -- even Darwin wasn't the first, or the only person to articulate ideas about the origins of diversity on earth.

Are Nobel laureates heroes?  Their discoveries may have been remarkable for their time, but a lot of them went on to Important jobs but rarely delivered comparable freight afterwards -- that's nobody's fault, but some universities spend a lot of funds for the name, that, dare one say it?, might better go to younger investigators whose gun hasn't yet been fired.

I recognize that the arts have movements, too, times in history when everyone seems to be doing the same thing, that it's not all about individuals, and famous personalities.  Juggling continues to get more spectacular, based on the work of even nameless jugglers who came before.  But Houdini wasn't just another escape artist.  There are specific things that a magician can learn from Houdini in order to become a better escape artist, but a biologist can do good biology without ever reading Darwin.  Certainly one can draw energy from thinking about how the greats like Darwin, Einstein, Shakespeare or Beethoven saw so deeply compared to their peers.  (Indeed, Alex Ross recently wrote a fine New Yorker piece about Beethoven standing high above composers who came before him and even after him.)  But that's not necessarily the same as insightful inspiration.

Bob Dylan; Wikipedia

So, is it the difference between being inspired by ideas rather than by the people who have the ideas? Perhaps in a way, but artists are inspired by ideas, too.  Penn said that when he was young his heroes were superhuman.  Like Bob Dylan, and they inspired him to grow up and do the best he could.  Now his heroes are just human, like Bob Dylan, and they inspire him to keep going.

I love good science, but I don't revere the people who do it, and never did.  Inspiration?  Excitement?  Yes, but that can come from the work of the non-famous as well as the well-known.  Maybe it's about finding our place in the context of our work, and however we manage to do that, with heroes or without, works for us.


Anonymous said...

I wrote this in 2012, where the third point was - "Worshiping science, not people"

"Shecky Riemann" said...

I think it is natural to have "heroes" when we're young, because the world is perceived in more 'black-and-white' terms then. As we age, shades-of-gray start to prevail, as does the realization that most humans are quite flawed. There are still individuals I deeply admire, but "hero" is just too strong a word, implying more than they deliver.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Shecky Riemann. That's a nice way to put it.

Anne Buchanan said...

And Manoj, totally agree.

JohnR said...

Funny you should have Bob Dylan there - I was just this morning talking about him; how I felt in his (and my) younger days that I couldn't understand why he got the press. To me back then (and even now) he seemed self-consciously Deep and Meaningful, but I just didn't hear as much in there as so many other people did. My version of color-blindness, maybe. His recent work, with his gravelly, wrecked voice, seems to me to be much more real and interesting; I'm not sure why. However, that's drifting off the road and into the weeds. My aim was just that 'heroes' are as much about us as about them. I feel, like Mr. Jilette, that I have perhaps more heroes now than I did when younger. I find the efforts of even some deeply flawed people to be more heroic than just 'deeply admirable'. Heroes inspire. Flawed heroes still inspire, or maybe inspire even more. Maybe science doesn't need heroes, though. YMMV.

Ken Weiss said...

I though pretty much the same of Dylan in those days, as of a number of other 'folk' singers from cities etc. Having heroes in any field tends to make that field gravitate towards being like them, and that can sometimes be OK (as in people recognizing the truth of evolution) but often it leads to herd behavior and stifling of creativity (Kuhn's 'normal science', that applies to arts, too)