On Heroic Scientists and Hagiography -The Toast

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Helen Craig’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

There’s a post going round Facebook that you might have seen. On one side, there’s a group of people, mostly male, many long dead. Kim Kardashian stands to their right. The caption reads: “If you don’t know who these people are, but you know who this is? Congratulations. You’re what’s wrong with the world.”

I have never had very strong feelings about Kim Kardashian, but this rubbed me the wrong way. Who are you to judge who I should and should not know about? Looking for the source of the meme, I found another version. It features Snooki from the Jersey Shore, so celebrity carbon dating would suggest that it popped up around 2010.


And Snooki’s not the only thing to have changed – in the older version, Newton, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Galileo have become Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and someone in an oil painting that I don’t immediately recognize.

There’s something interesting going on here, in addition to the obvious fact that I am, indeed, what is wrong with the world. Both the writers who appear in the Snooki version are forthright and gifted, but they’re also controversial — and not as widely known outside the activist or atheist scene. It’s possible their presence made the users of the meme feel bad, because they too weren’t sure who these people were, or knew them but did not agree with them. 

Scientists are seen as acceptable Good Things. Sure, we love them mad and bad in our films, but the real-life ones are often celebrated. Academics have noticed this, too. Dr. Patricia Fara, a historian of science, tells me that when she was writing her book, Newton: The Making of Genius, she noticed the way his biographers and fans started to place him above all others. She thinks we have begun to cast geniuses to perform the role in society that saints used to fill. 

I’ve noticed this is often combined with presentism, the tendency to view the past through our own morals and beliefs, and use it to validate them. There’s a word for uncritical, moralistic biographical stories: hagiography, named after the biographies of saints in early Christian churches. I think our particular hagiography of scientists is a problem. Whatever else they were, at least the medieval saints were a commendably mixed-sex group, hailing from a wide range of cultural backgrounds that took in everyone from peasants to princesses. In contrast, our science heroes tend to be the Great Men of European history.

Is there another way to talk about the history of science? Dr. Fara has dedicated much of her writing to finding out. She is a champion of not including champions. One person I sought advice from on Twitter claimed that her Science: A Four Thousand Year History is probably the only attempt to write a long history of science without great men. “The rest of us,” said my source, “are too scared to try.”

In her book, Dr. Fara gleefully challenges the heroic narratives of, well, almost everyone. The book is not about geniuses or heroes, but real people: “men (and some women) who needed to earn their living, who made mistakes, who trampled down their rivals, or even sometimes got bored and did something else.” It’s full of great stories, including one in which she calls out Newton for his hypocrisy – campaigning for accurate measurement, yet so wedded to the Greek harmonic universe that he decided to divide the rainbow into seven colours to make it fit a harmonic musical scale. (It’s usually stated that he fudged it by including both indigo and blue, but I’m most skeptical about orange.)

Science is shaped by the beliefs of those who practice it; the book points out that science owes much to society: “In a sense, the history of science is a history of everything…modern science, technology and medicine are interwoven, intimately bound up in a giant knotted web with every other human activity all over the globe.” And the best scientist is the one who can convince other people that she or he is right, not the one who just gets it right. Knowledge is never fixed, and there is “no guarantee that the cutting edge science of today won’t become the discredited alchemy of tomorrow.”

So why do we keep telling stories with scientists as heroes?

When I asked about science heroes on Twitter, someone recommended a fantastically named paper by Prof. David Miller: “The ‘Sobel Effect’: The Amazing Tale of How Multitudes of Popular Writers Pinched All the Best Stories in the History of Science and Became Rich and Famous while Historians Languished in Accustomed Poverty and Obscurity, and how this Transformed the World. A Reflection on a Publishing Phenomenon.” The paper is a slightly tongue-in-cheek lament over the simplified popular science of books like Dava Sobel’s Longitude – books in which, according to a quote from Kathryn Hughes, “a decent, working-class boffin beavers away for years in the eighteenth-century equivalent of a garden shed, while a bunch of toffs in wigs do everything they can to make sure that he doesn’t get the credit for his brilliant break- through.”

Prof. Miller concludes that there is a place for exciting narrative history, but that professional historians should try to bring some of their own views into the public eye, in works that fall somewhere between the “serious scholarly monograph and the airport bookshop bestseller.” Things have indeed progressed in that direction in the years since he wrote his paper, and there are now many projects and prizes to encourage the study of the history of science. But his conclusion about the impact of worshipful popular science books still rings true today: “The overall messages…are fairly clear. They are that science is the product of individual genius, that scientific discovery is an heroic process, and that science leads to technology, has impacts and transforms the world.” 

The sort of message that Miller has noticed coming from popular media seems egalitarian, but what it’s really saying is that systematic prejudice is nothing compared to the pure power of truth. Sadly, that is not always the case, and making it seem as though it’s easy for anyone to be a scientific hero fuels the fire of those who like to argue that women are fundamentally less skilled scientists.

Miller thinks that the glut of science heroes occupy the snarled territory between science history and science communication. Historians of science and those who communicate effectively about science often share common loves — and sometimes common goals — but they are very different. An historian usually wants to challenge a straightforward, heroic view of the past, and usually her only payment is the credit of her peers. A science communicator just wants to tell a good story and get people excited about science; communicators are credited with making an idea popular. But what happens when this means sticking to the same old, worn-out stories, about the same old, worn-out (white and male) protagonists?

One option is to find more obscure heroes. Chances are, if you’ve heard of Giordano Bruno, it was because of the new Cosmos TV series, a worthy piece of science communication which opened with a short animated film about the 16th-century thinker. His introduction makes him sound almost like a hard-boiled superhero: “There was only one man on the entire planet who envisaged an infinitely grander cosmos. And how was he spending New Year’s Eve of the Year 1600? Why, in prison, of course.”

Burnt at the stake in 1600 for multiple heresies, Bruno certainly was a rebel. He believed that the sun was at the centre of the galaxy, that there was a plurality of worlds, and that an infinite universe reflected the infinite glory of God. Cosmos wins grumpy historian points by mentioning other thinkers who contributed to his ideas, and by never calling him a scientist – as no one was, officially, until the word was coined in 1834 or thereabouts. But the story unmistakably casts him as a martyr and a hero, when in fact the real man was far more complicated. Bruno was a philosopher, but also a magician, a theologian, and a religious zealot. His beliefs about the world came from visions and dreams and old books. He happened to hit on what we today believe to be “right,” but isn’t that just presentism coming back to bite us? Corey S. Powell of Discover magazine argues that another man, Thomas Digges, is more deserving of celebration. Digges was a sensible man, unglamorously compromising to make the new planetary ideas of Copernicus seem sensible and acceptable to his peers. Powell states that raising Giordano Bruno up as a hero ignores the importance of collaboration and cumulative effort in science.

Dr. Fara would also point out that there’s a bit of intellectual snobbery involved in hailing the ones who got it “right,” when the ones who got it wrong were often using the best data, resources, and explanations available at the time. We have a poorer view of the past if we only look to it to affirm our own heroes and our own reflections. The pages of The Four Thousand Year History are filled with stories of people who held “modern” views at surprising times — like Aristarchus, who in the 3rd century B.C.E. maintained that the Earth went around the Sun. But what does it matter, if these individuals could not explain their thoughts or their work and persuade others of what they believed? “When thinking about how Greek philosophers influenced the future, the concepts that count are ones their successors adopted,” Dr. Fara writes. “Whether modern scientists now judge them to be good or bad is irrelevant.”

The people who work in areas viewed as less “glamorous” or “important” end up shortchanged by history. Thomas Digges had more impact in his time than Giordano Bruno. But there’s always that little voice that whispers in your mind, saying that what Digges did hardly beats being burnt at the stake, does it? It’s hard to remain immune to the lure of a good story.

Yet by ignoring collaboration, and sticking with the science “A-List,” we’re also, for the most part, ignoring women. In another book, Pandora’s Breeches, Fara points out: “In well-intentioned pastiches of the past, scientific women emerge as cardboard cutouts – the selfless helpmate, the source of inspiration, the dedicated assistant who sacrifices everything for the sake of her man and the cause of science. On the other hand, over-compensation – glorifying women as lone pioneers, as unrecognized geniuses – also has its drawbacks.” The work of translators, teachers, and assistants may not be the focus of many histories, but that doesn’t make their roles any less important.

So what should we talk about when we talk about science? Maybe we should just aim not to diminish anyone’s work. Dr. Fara brings up the example of the plaque outside the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, commemorating the moment when Crick and Watson announced that they had “discovered the secret of life.” But of course, she says, we have not discovered the secret of life, and we probably never will. I can’t help but agree with her. To say that Crick and Watson figured out the meaning of life ignores the contributions of others, from the famous Rosalind Franklin to co-Nobel winner Maurice Wilkins and hundreds of others. And it also presumes that anything can be truly solved once and for all; that the world of science isn’t a wonderful, ever-moving stream of new discoveries and new work, driven by the human beings who have decided to solve these problems amongst all the other cares of their lives.

As we endeavor not to diminish anyone’s contribution, we should also remember the fallibility of our heroic narratives. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s never quite felt enthusiastic about those lists of inventions by women: Did you know that a woman invented the windscreen wiper? At the same time, I’ve realized that every story of invention is a reach. The biographers of James Watt or Isaac Newton were working just as hard as the “women in science” listicle writers to create an image of the world (and the scientists) they’d like to see. And created heroes often leave a trail of historical devastation in their wake.

So maybe heroes are the villains here? If you know who these people are, and admire them…congratulations, you’re what’s wrong with the world. Please report to your local library for a historiography textbook.

When we spoke over the phone, Dr. Fara told me that there’s no one particular reason to study or write the history of science — she does it because it’s just so fascinating, and because by looking at the past, we can better understand how we got to the present and use that knowledge to inform our future. In the same way, it’s clear that there is no one particular aim behind the stories we tell. Some people do deserve to be remembered, and you’ll always have your favourite characters in a tale. Perhaps it’s enough if we try to remember that our heroes aren’t known to us by accident, and acknowledge the sheer number of people who’ve had a hand in shaping our heroes and deciding who’s important and who’s not.

With thanks to Prof. Miller, Dr. Fara, The Sleepless Reader’s review of Pandora’s Breeches, @steve_x, @thrustvector and @JamesBSumner on Twitter, and commenters briliantmistake and SarcasticFringehead. Any mistakes are my own.

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