why scientists and rock stars don’t mix
Chris Mooney, the co-author of Unscientific America, is wondering whether scientists could ever be rock stars. The reason behind his question is the recent feature in GQ called Rock Stars of Science, a noteworthy photo spread in which leading scientists pose next to rock stars as if they’re part of a band. Chris thinks the idea of the spread is certainly a good one and would like to see more features like that in the future, just with younger scientists posing next to other big names. But the big question still remains. Could scientists ever become as well known as celebrities, or would every spread and feature looking to equate them leave the public cold?
Before we answer that, we should consider what makes rock stars and other entertainment celebrities so famous and popular. The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that they live glamorous lifestyles out of reach for almost anyone else, or at least that’s what we’re constantly told in the media. The idea of flying around the world to stay in penthouse suites of the finest hotels, being waited on by armies of butlers and being recognized wherever you go is attractive on a downright primal level. The most visible members of a community tend to have the most power, the greatest access to resources and have their pick of the best mates. Celebrities are the alphas of American society and thanks to the tabloid press, millions of people can live vicariously through them, wondering what it would be like to live the life of fame, fortune and luxury. And there’s another important reason why we’re so interested in entertainers and their exploits.
While only a few people can make music, act or write on par with professionals and have the skills and the contacts to make these hobbies into careers, we understand what entertainers do. Not so with scientists. We can look at them next to a rock star, make a respectful nod at the fact that they have PhDs and work day and night to answer important questions about us and the universe in which we live, but ultimately the public has no idea what exactly they do. Trying to explain what an astrophysicist or a geneticist really does would take the equivalent of a course in the discipline. Rock stars, actors and writers? We have an idea of what they might be doing when they work and what to do with their end product. With scientists exploring fields most of us know nothing about, both the work they do and how it applies to our daily lives is fuzzy at best and bewilderingly mysterious at worst. How can we bestow fame on someone when we have no idea what he or she actually does for a living?
Even if we were to follow Chris’ advice and make more photo spreads showing scientists acting just like any other human, all we would do is prove that scientists can be separated from their lab coats without surgical intervention. However, we wouldn’t be any closer to explaining what scientists do, how their work benefits us and why people would want to be scientists. If anything, many scientists don’t make all that much money, they’re not well known outside their fields unless they enter the realm of social commentary in the style of PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, and science jobs are very sparse and very difficult to get. Where is the glitz and glamor we’ve all come to expect from superstar entertainers? And again, what exactly do they do and how do we explain it in a way that the public can understand and appreciate the importance of their work?