The Scientific Hero Myth

April 27, 2010

Only connect, as E.M.Forster said. For your pleasure tonight I connect astronomer and necromancer John Dee, Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse, and movie icon Kevin Bacon. Ready ?

Today I attended the annual Crawford Lecture on the history of astronomy, this year given by Adam Mosley. His theme was the way we simplify the history of science by presenting it as the passing of the baton from one scientific giant to the next. We saw this story yet again on the TV tonight, in “The Story of Science”. The truth is far more complex, Mosley told us : then as now there was a whole community of scientists with ideas bouncing between them in letters and books. The classic example is the way one hears repeatedly that Tycho Brahe “dissolved the crystal spheres” by observing a comet that must have cracked through several layers. But this idea had been discussed many times by many people; and in fact Brahe never claimed credit for this discovery; he only said that his own comet observations convinced him it was correct.

Adam’s opening gag was a reference to an article in The Onion :  Four or Five Guys Pretty Much Carry Whole Renaissance . Very funny and very much au point.

He also showed us a hairy network diagram of sixteeenth century astronomers illustrating the links between them. Over nibbles afterwards I asked him whether he’d heard of the Erdos number, and indeed he had. Actually, he said, he thought the astronomer turned necromancer John Dee was the sixteenth century Kevin Bacon : the person who minimised the links from Scientist A to Scientist B.

So now check out this interview with Paul Nurse . Sir Paul is lined up to succeed Martin Rees as the next President of the Royal Society. He says we should reform science funding by giving long term support to the small number of scientists who can actually “move the needle”. I must admit some days I feel this too : just give lots of money to the best people and let them get on with it. There’s too much mediocrity in the world.

And yet… isn’t this being suckered into that simple narrative, where the complex fluid dynamics of history is re-written as the human story of four or five guys ?