No more heroes anymore.

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.

13 Comments

Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

13 responses to “No more heroes anymore.

  1. As I read this post, I wondered about the words/concepts “saints and heroes”. Here are my unauthenticated two cents.
    As far as I know, ancient Greek heroes were practically expected to have flaws. As for saints, if we are to go by Norman Douglas’/Haynes’ assertion that some good of the Catholic tradition has been lost, I forward that the true meaning of the saint has also been lost: the saint is also flawed (if one believes in God in this equation, only God is perfect).
    The deification of men’s lives, to my mind, is connected to “the end of history”, no longer magistra vitae. So, I wonder about questioning our present relationship with history and our didactic views. From looking at to looking through. I wonder about how to make space for – to borrow your wonderful phrase – the drunken alleyways of the scholar. Then, that “end of history” is but the drunken bump to the head!
    P.S. (to continue from my last comment, last week) I knew that Giants’ Shoulders was open to all to host, but wish, for my own reasons, to make my blog more conducive to such discussion.

  2. Phebe Baltazzi

    In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary the word “HERO” is defined as a person admired by many for his noble qualities or his bravery. This definition clearly delimits the character of a person as an ethical being, primarily…; there is not the least reference to exceptional or supernatural capabilities or attributes! As so, the hero must be seen as a person of unselfish (because noble), hard-working, continuous self-giving (because brave), which not the majority is willing to do so !!!
    In this sense heroes exist, are few, and need and deserve our applause, whether these people are scientists, or mothers at home…

  3. But in modern times, the notion of the hero has – popularly – become the kind of symbol that horrified a scientist like Tyndall: “they afford peaceful lodging to the intellect for a time, but they also circumscribe it, and by-and-by, wen the mind has grown too large for its own lodging, it often finds difficulty in breaking down the walls of what has become its prison instead of its home”.
    I have a score of books on my shelves that are not primarily about science (for example, they are about archaeology, or philosophy), which perpetuate a deified myth of scientists like Newton, Copernicus, Descartes as a shorthand to define the “scientific revolution”. I myself am to blame for such shorthands. But when I think of it, when I started to think of it, I realised that the “scientific revolution” was also a myth, resting on the shoulders of misinterpreted signs. I don’t know that the dictionary saves one from such myths: it increases the stakes of how one is discussing such topics.

  4. If the object of your game is to understand the history of the sciences, hero worship is always a distraction and usually an error. On the other hand, if your focus is on how people imagine science, the banal themes of the standard narratives—heroism, crisis, godlike insight, struggle against obscurantism, etc.—become the subject and not the distraction. A case of vases and faces. One of the first philosophers of science I ever encountered was Gaston Bachelard, who began his career understanding the history of science as a struggle against beguiling fantasies but eventually got beguiled into studying the fantasies themselves.

    I guess one could dismiss the folk version of scientific history as an affair of the people, but anybody who reads the comment threads over at Pharyngula knows that the historical mythology of science is extremely popular with the scientific laity. In fact, the Whig theory of scientific history is an integral part of their commonsense, enshrined in the narrative paragraphs of countless textbooks. It’s as much a part of the self-understanding of many scientists as the Manichean struggle of science and theology. Whether you think scientific hero worship is absurd as history, it obviously serves a purpose over and beyond selling pop science books.

    Bachelard thought that the fantasies that surrounded early thinking about matter were crucial to motivating research, a fact that can be forgotten since, ironically, the results of the research eventually dispelled the fantasies. Things have changed; but scientific work still requires motivation. If you bracket the romance of the thing and just look at the scientist at the lab bench, the hour by hour labors of scientist are, for the most part, taken up with what looks a lot like financial accounting. Absent the dream, science is extremely boring, which is why realistic novels about science or so rare. Of course there are subtler and cruder ways of romanticizing science, and imagining yourself as another Newton is not the only or necessarily the most effective one. Still, the motivational structure of the sciences in the real world institutionalizes the hero idea in a basic way by making priority an absolutely fundamental criterion of accomplishment. The centrality of the individual, or at least the name of the individual, is built in, if not to science, at least to SCIENCE—I mean the journal and its standard operating procedures.

    I’ve been thinking about all this for several decades and have come to the conclusion that the deepest illusion of the scientists is that science is something that individual scientists do and scientific knowledge is something that individual scientists can possess. In this regard, they share an illusion with the philosophers, who also dream that the universe can come to consciousness in their singular mind. Of course, to adopt a rather Buddhist way of talking about things, the illusion in question is not a mere figment. It has citizen’s rights, at least in the world name and form. Individuals do all the work and all the thinking—there isn’t any hive mind at work—but whatever truth emerges from private insight either becomes part of the social structure of the sciences or evaporates into nothingness. The situation is rather like what happens in our biology. In every generation, human life must revert to a unicellular, indeed haploid, form. Fortunately, it is not necessary to convince the ovum or spermatazoon of its heroic dignity. On the other hand, promoting the vanity of the individual scientist may be a good thing.

  5. Pingback: Heroes for the laity | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  6. Kate Morant

    Nice post, Thony. I think your phrase “just like you and me” is key. I became interested in late C17 science a couple of years ago and it was the main players, Newton, Halley, Hooke etc, that drew me in, and learning about such people and how they interacted has led me to read more deeply about the period and about how science was done – so I think personalities have a useful role to play in attracting the lay reader and giving them a foot-hold in the subject.

    But presenting them as ‘heroes’ almost certainly has the opposite effect: that might grab your attention initially, but it is unlikely to retain it. Learning that Newton was a complex, difficult, autocratic personality makes him far more compelling then the dull, saintly figure I’ve encountered in some books. The more Newton becomes “like you and me”, the more interesting and intellectually remarkable he seems.

    One of the things I’ve most enjoyed as my knowledge has increased is being able to situate these men in a coffee-house or at a Royal Society meeting and see them discussing, arguing and plotting in just the same way that people do today – and encountering them at one’s own level (so to speak) makes them far more interesting, not less so.

    • Really nice comment Kate. Hits the nail right on the head. Viewed as they really were these people become much more interesting.

      • Matthew Cobb

        When I talk about the fact that 17th and 18th century thinkers didn’t “get” that egg and sperm were equivalent, I emphasise to students that they can never use as an explanation in studying the history of science “they were dumb”. The fact is, most of those thinkers appear to have been a lot smarter than your average student, and therein lies the challenge – why did so many smart people not “get” a particular view which we now consider to be correct? That then leads to the idea of a “rational reconstruction” of the thinking, and above all the limits in the thinking, of people in the past. That’s history. And to stray onto the topic of whiggish history of science, which you’ve dealt with admirably elsewhere, I think it’s also what puts the history of science into a different part of history from economic or military history. Science is different because it is progressive (more or less) and it obtains more or less true findings. Certainly more so than say a political analysis of the English Civil War / bourgeois revolution / war of the three kingdoms (take your pick…) which will never settle on any one interpretation of what is “correct” or even what actually happened.

      • Matthew I’m sure your use of the history of science in your lectures is exemplary. Given my well known highly critical attitude to much popular and semi-popular history of science, if Im asked which books fulfil my standards of good history of science literature then your The Egg & Sperm Race is very high up on the list.

  7. I visited Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan this weekend and saw Edison’s machine shop and one of the laboratories where the “99% perspiration” happened (Henry Ford apparently collected buildings like some people collect cars…) What is rarely noted is that, given the size of his research staff, the 99% perspiration was (for the most part) not Edison’s. Learning how badly Newton treated Hooke (for example) and how often credit for discoveries was denied to those who earned a good part of it helps dispel notions of superhuman genius.

    Frankly, I’m surprised Jonas Salk didn’t beat Albert Sabin to death with a tire iron. If I was in his shoes, I’d have at least broken Sabin’s jaw.

    On a more positive note, I saw a Jacquard loom and some lovely old overhead-belt-driven pre-electric lathes, mills, and shapers. Beautiful old technology.

  8. Pingback: Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes? | Darin Hayton

  9. Looks to me like its all pretty much been said except I think perhaps we’re all getting a bit caught up in definitions of heroes and in determinedly disagreeing with Dr Highfield. Does he not just mean its nice to have a human face attached to any given scientific story for people to relate to? I don’t think that means that individual’s story can’t include their failures & foibles or include the many other characters that helped/collaborated/taught etc along the way. It just means its helpful to have a way in. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I can’t help feeling that simply criticizing his choice of the term ‘hero’ isn’t going to win round many of the people who might largely buy into Highfield’s argument.

  10. Pingback: Does History Have a Role in Society? | Darin Hayton

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