Physics as a gauge of celebrity

Word has come that Stephen Hawking has been hospitalized.  He’s had ALS for forty-six years and, as a result, is one of the rare 5% of ALS patients who live five years past their diagnosis.  Of course I wish him all the best and hope for a speedy recovery.

But it got me thinking.  This news made the headlines on major news outlets such as MSNBC, The New York Times, CNN, and Fox News (has anyone noticed how poorly laid out these sites are, by the way?).  There was a time when many of the world’s leading physicists were celebrities, or at least as much so as Hawking.  While it is not that surprising that Einstein regularly made the news, it might be surprising to the modern public how many other physicists used to regularly make headlines.

For example, a quick search of ‘Niels Bohr’ on the NY Times’ online archive turned up numerous front page articles including one from 1933 concerning his complementarity principle!  Could you imagine the same sort of thing appearing today, even in the NY Times?  Not likely.  These days it seems Hawking is about the only truly giant in physics that is recognized by the casual public (note that while Brian Greene and a few others might be recognized, they have not made contributions to physics on par with Hawking’s).

Even at the peak of the general public’s interest in physics (arguably the first half of this century) physicists were still heavily outnumbered by other types of celebrities.  Nonetheless, the fact that their are fewer near-universally recognized physicists than there used to be is possibly a gauge of celebrity in general.  Perhaps you recall a time, for instance, when pop music produced acts everyone not only had heard of but listened to.  For example, in the 1980s, regardless of your taste in music, you likely heard a Michael Jackson song at some point.  But what musician is like that today?  Where are all the huge acts (outside of the geezers like U2 and the Stones who are still touring)?  When I was growing up we regularly had bands play in what is now Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo, a venue that sat 80,000 for a football game back then and probably more for a concert.  That doesn’t happen anymore (and it has nothing to do with the economy since the economy hasn’t changed in Buffalo in forty years).

I contend that we are witnessing the end of universal celebrity.  I don’t know why – perhaps an increasing population makes it harder to reach everyone or perhaps modern technology has made it easier for us to pick and choose what we are interested in.  Perhaps both.  Who knows.  There’s still life to it in Hollywood – TV and film – but I wouldn’t be surprised if that slowly faded as well.  The only thing that concerns me is that I think there is a connection here to the fact that we are also losing universal genius – the Einstein phenomenon is what I call it – a single person who is earth-shattering is his or her scientific conclusions or results.  Increasingly experimentally earth-shattering results are performed by huge teams of scientists while very few earth-shattering theoretical results (i.e. ones that cover broad swaths of various subdisciplines) even exist anymore (or are at least more hotly contested and/or more often ignored than they used to be).

The days of being a big fish in a big pond are coming to an end.  People will have to increasingly accept that being a big fish in a small, local pond may be the best they’ll do.

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3 Responses to “Physics as a gauge of celebrity”

  1. I suspect that at least part of the reason that physicists used to be better known is that they used to be seen to be the driving force behind interesting and important things the general public could relate to. Such as atom bombs, lasers, etc. For the past 50 years or so the perception is that aspects of technology and science that affect everyday people are developed incrementally by very large teams (Intel, Microsoft, GE), and the things that individual physicists work on are almost by definition without impact on the average person (if it were impactful, why isn’t a corporation doing it?). Physicists tend to be horrified by this line of argument, but I think it is generically true that the most interesting projects are built around large well-financed collaborations.

  2. physicsandcake Says:

    This is something I’ve been considering a lot lately. I wonder what will happen to academic and business society in the future as a result of increasing large-scale collaboration and connectivity.

    When television and newspaper were the main source or reporting, there was a much more selective process to the stories being published (due to limited resources). In addition, there were a few newspapers that everyone read, and there were a few television programmes which everyone watched. And in this regime, people were selected to appear in such reports in many cases purely because they were well known. It was a rich get richer scheme. The structure was a large, sparsely connected space with a few highly connected nodes.

    With the rise of Internet reporting, nowadays the highly connected nodes are still present, but there are many, many more of them. Lots of people now use the Internet as their main source of news, and this source is so distributed that to rise above the noise level is much harder. People have access to so much more than a few ‘popular’ programmes and newspapers. And I agree with your comments; I don’t think that this new structure allows individuals to make so much of an impact.

    In a way this is good, because the rich get richer scheme is somewhat disbanded. However the traditional method of presenting to the public topics which (at the risk of sounding rather right wing here) ‘they should be learning about’ such as scientific progress etc. has also broken down. Television has had to change strategy, in a way I believe to be detrimental. With such easy distractions available, television in particular can no longer survive as a learning and ‘morally guiding’ experience. It must move more towards entertainment and impact factor.

    As such, people wishing to follow intellectual pursuits do not have many guiding public icons presented to them as part of their daily lives. They must find their own role models amongst the noise, and then fight against the noise to become the role models of the future. Which is not necessarily a bad thing 🙂

    Apologies for the long post, you’ve struck on something I’ve been musing over lately. In fact I’ve been contemplating writing a couple of essays about related topics!

  3. quantummoxie Says:

    Geordie and Suze,

    Excellent and insightful comments. I think one thing that scares me is that as we move closer to a model in which the information we obtain is plucked by choice out of the noise, we become increasingly less likely to hear dissenting/opposing opinions and I think that’s dangerous.

    It is true that many of the bleeding edge scientific endeavours these days are carried out by large corporate/government groups. But unfortunately I think some of the most profound ideas are washed out in the noise. While quantum teleportation has gotten some publicity recently thanks to Chris Monroe’s recent work, the no-cloning theorem – which I think ought to be standard introductory QM fare – is relatively unknown and yet it is deeply profound. In fact many physicists themselves are only vaguely aware of Bell’s inequalities, and yet these ideas are tremendously profound.

    What worries me is that we’ve reached the stage where consensus on scientific ideas is harder to reach (which is why I think we may never see the full marriage of QM and GR) and, appallingly, the public views this as casting doubt on scientific discoveries and begins to pick and choose what they believe in (but don’t understand that the very word ‘belief’ is unscientific).

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