Why science still needs its heroes


The lone genius may be a romantic invention, but we need their stories if we are to inspire the public

‘No more heroes any more,” went the punk anthem, and last week the eminent Cambridge physicist Athene Donald argued in this newspaper that this is especially true in the world of science. Progress today, she says, does not come about through the insights of great men or women working alone, but via the systematic collaboration of hundreds, or even thousands, of researchers.

Well, I beg to differ. Tomorrow night at the Royal Society, I will counter that if science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.

In the light of several popular, myth-busting history books, this is an unfashionable view. In Fabulous Science (2002), John Waller insists that many popular portraits of “great scientists” are romantic inventions, hagiographies that underplay the contributions of the many to focus on a fallible few who resorted to low cunning as much as technical virtuosity. When, for example, Sir Arthur Eddington “confirmed” general relativity and helped turn Einstein into a superstar, he subjected his results to what Waller calls “extensive cosmetic surgery”.

It is true that if you examine the details of a breakthrough, you may well discover a story more complicated than populist accounts suggest. Lone genius does seem to be becoming rarer as researchers join forces, whether the 10,000 working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, or the mathematicians cooperating in Sir Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project. Modern science, it can be argued, is simply too big for a Faraday or Einstein to change its direction.

Nevertheless it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants, where if any one person perishes, progress is unaffected. Do we want to deny the significance of the likes of Isaac Newton and Marie Curie? Would we want to lose the story of the Principia, in which Newton gave us his laws of motion and universal gravitation? Or how Curie won two Nobel prizes before dying of aplastic anaemia brought on by years of exposure to radiation?

Written By: Roger Highfield
continue to source article at telegraph.co.uk


  1. We don’t need their stories if they’re romantic inventions. Truth is essential to science so how would it serve any purpose to inspire the public with romantic falsehoods to an endeavor where truth is paramount? Science itself is very interesting and that is enough to inspire the public. Science is awe-inspiring.

  2. Scientists of yesteryear were both lone discoverers and responsible for promoting the theories that followed in the open bazaar of ideas – and that made them household names.  That was partly due to the fact they were studying basic nature at the most accessible layer, and partly due to the lack of social structures within, and around, science itself.

    The current structure of science comes from greater collaboration.  This means that new observations (incl. from experiments), need to be reported in two arenas:
     - Peer review
     - The public and political sphere

    In addition, it is clear that science is developing in another new direction.  In the past those making the observations were in the right place to extrapolate from the observations and theorise – partly because they could move easily from theory to testing a theory’s predictions.  Again, this illustrates the basic nature of what they were doing.

    Today, growing sophistication means we see experiment and observation tending to be separated from theorising.

    As far as promoting science goes I don’t really understand Roger Highfield’s point.  If lots of people worked on the answer why not recognise them all?  Doing so would seem to promote the idea that even those who clean the workbench and back-up the computers will contribute.  People with less-than-stellar ambitions and educational attainment are required to discover new science.  Who is to say that people will be more, or less, inspired by working alone or in a Team?  Teamwork is normal for almost all worthwhile human endeavours, after all.  We’ve been doing it ever since we invented specialisation – at least 6,000 years ago, though division of labour may trace its roots back another 8,000 years before that.

    Today’s scientific heroes are those bringing the science to the general public – like Sir David Attenborough – or they’re leading teams – like Lawrence Krauss.  Do we rally need more than that?

  3. I agree with Jiten. Scientists welcome recognition for their hard work but, unlike religious and political figures, they tend to glean more enjoyment from discovery than from accolades. Their humility alone is enough to elevate their stature and inspire like minded individuals toward hero worship. The world has enough heroes, we need more global cooperation and common sense in our societies.

  4. “an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an
    army of ants, where if any one person perishes, progress is unaffected.
    Do we want to deny the significance of the likes of Isaac Newton and
    Marie Curie?”
    The writer is going over the top here, talking as if there are only those two extremes, with no middle ground, and is implying that anyone who disagrees with his partiality for heroes, automatically wants an “army of ants”.
    What matters is the results. James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, turned out to have some unfortunate racist attitudes, but that has no bearing on the truth or value of the scientific research, though unfortunately a lot of otherwise sensible people probably think it has.

  5. I think that a hero of the scientific community will be more leader than champion. That’s how you reflect the narrative of science requiring the combined efforts of thousands yet acknowledge the value of individual contribution. 

  6. There’s still room for the Turings,the Diracs and the Einsteins to arise and become famous.
    When one is gifted with such a gargantuan intellect as world changing scientists in the past clearly were;then fame and fortune are bound to follow.
    I’m pretty sure that J Craig Venter will sometime in the near future announce a radical new genome discovery(he is of course backed up by some serious talent within his institute)

  7. Dear CEVA34. Lets not forget the hard-working, lone female scientists – like Dame Jocelyn Bell (discoverer of 1st pulsar) or Rosalind Franklin (her X-ray photo revealed the dbl’helix). Both, to some degree deliberately ignored, and both women had a Nobel prize share ‘nicked’ from under their wornout labcoats. Double helix co-discoverers Crick and Watson? Not only, “. . . .some unfortunate racist attitudes” then.    

  8. Personally, I think the word “hero” has been over used. In Australia, a hero is a sports person who wins. Whenever I see someone described as a “hero”, I now cringe. Why not leave it to refer to a person who puts themselves at personal risk to aid (in a meaningful sense) others. Surely there’s a better word/phrase ?

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