You are going to read an article written by Roger Highfield. For each question, choose the answer which you think fits best according to the text.

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?

Such stories are inspirational. Einstein was led to special relativity by thinking about riding on light beams. Darwin was not the only person formulating evolutionary theories, but it was he who brought natural selection to life and made it part of our culture. More recently, scientists such as Peter Higgs, Craig Venter and Tim Berners-Lee are identified with breakthroughs in physics, genetics and computing respectively.

They were not, of course, working alone—and would not claim to be. But their efforts humanise some of the most arcane concepts in our culture. Who could deny that the extraordinary human story of Stephen Hawking has brought scientific concepts to the attention of millions?

Thanks to brain scan studies by Francesca Happé and colleagues in London, we have learnt how the human predilection to make narratives out of whatever we encounter—to see agency in dark shadows and stories written in the stars—is wired into our neural circuits. This is why, after hundreds of years, we are still recounting Homer’s Iliad and why, when it comes to selling the magic of science, the most powerful way is through stories.

Scientific heroes are the genes of science. Some of them are pretty selfish, too. You will find egos the size of Jupiter, bitter rivalries, dodgy practices—even fraud. But the stories of their heroics carry the values of science more potently than anything else. For all their faults, heroes are the most viral transmitters in the crowded realm of ideas.

Scientists routinely use metaphors as shorthand for complex and mathematical ideas. By the same token, you need heroic characters who appreciate the significance of a chance observation, or the power of mathematical beauty, to convey a vivid sense of the way science works. For me, the big issue is not whether we should have heroes, but how to ensure that they tell a reasonably truthful story.

Man and metaphor: Einstein is a symbol of scientific progress (Rex)


Premium Content

Sign in to access this content.

Tagged in: