The Royal Society is advertising a lecture by Dr Roger Highfield with the potentially provocative title Heroes of Science. The provocation is confirmed in the paragraph describing the content of the lecture:
Scientists love them. Historians of science can’t stand them. The view that science rests on the shoulders of heroes and on them alone cannot be defended. Nonetheless, the public are moved and inspired by the stories of astronauts who’ve risked their lives, mathematicians who crack enemy codes or laboratory scientists who make life-saving medical discoveries. Science still needs their illuminating stories to engage with the public, even if that does distort the depiction of the way real science is done. Not only should we reinstate the heroes of science, we need other kinds too – heroes that are not even made of flesh and blood.
Now I am a historian of science, or at least I pretend to be one, and the regular reader(s) of this blog will be well aware of the fact that I really can’t stand history of science hero worship so they will expect me to take a somewhat negative view of Dr Highfield’s insistence on the necessity of heroes. I do and I don’t!
Having spent several decades studying the history of science I would be totally stupid if I didn’t acknowledge that there are figures in the history of science who stand head and shoulders above their fellow scholars, Newton, Leibniz, Darwin, Einstein, Feynman just to name a few of the usual suspects. I also think that the life stories of these people can and should be used pedagogically to educate and inspire future generations of potential scientists and to convince the general public, read tax payers, of the necessity of adequately financing scientific research and the education and training of those future scientists, however I don’t think we should present them as heroes.
There is a clichéd saying, attributed to Thomas Edison, that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and with out exception all of the so-called heroes of science achieved what they achieved through long gruelling hours of very hard work. Also, without exception, all of them were dependent on the work of others and not just the proverbial giants on whose shoulders Newton claimed to stand when he
stole borrowed that infamous quote from Bernard of Chartres. It also goes without saying that every major figure in the history of science got things wrong, sometimes blocking the progress of their discipline in the process. Often the leading scholars of an age were also anything but nice people, arrogant, bloody minded, anti-social or just plain socially inept, ordinary everyday people just like you and me.
By all means use the great figures of the history of science to illustrate the scientific disciplines and to inspire interest in them but present those figures as the real human beings that they were with all their virtues and their failing and not as cardboard cut out saints or heroes.