roger_highfield's picture
Director, External Affairs, Science Museum Group; Co-author (with Martin Nowak), SuperCooperators
The Decline Of The Scientific Hero


In post-Olympic Great Britain, everyone is still basking in the glory of last summer's crop of sporting superheroes. Thanks to Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and all the other British medalists there's overwhelming support for the view that the Games were great value, despite the huge cost of around £9 billion. But, by comparison, how many heroes of this year's science does anyone remember? Answer: British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, and for work he did half a century ago.

This worries me because science needs heroes for the same reason as the Olympics. If we abandon our heroes, we make science insipid. And if it's boring, science loses support and funding. Yet we need science to inspire and engage ordinary people more than ever before because, through technology, it's the most powerful force acting on today's culture. What a difference it would make to how science is regarded by the public if we had a few more contemporary scientific heroes.

But it's becoming harder to find them. One reason is that traditional accounts of scientific discovery have been so flawed that the very idea of a hero has fallen into disrepute. These accounts tend to elevate a few brilliant men into geniuses, but consign the rest—including almost all women—to oblivion. Historians of science have made much of how the record has been egregiously distorted by individuals seeking to lionize disciplines and glorify nations.

They emphasise that discovery is a story of many participants, not of lone heroes or "eureka" moments. I don't disagree. Scientists are engaged in a great cooperative venture, one in which they build on the hard work of their predecessors, their peers and their competitors. The problem is that, when taken to extremes, this view can give the impression that science is carried out by a vast and faceless army which explores the infinite parameter space of possible experiments or theory, where breakthroughs are inevitable and individual endeavour counts for little.

A second force undermining heroes comes from the relentless rise of big science. Some 10,000 visiting scientists, half of the world's particle physicists, come to CERN in Geneva to join forces in their research. The members of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium came from a vast array of institutions. The follow up Encode analysis of the genome relied on more than 440 scientists. Even maths, traditionally a lonesome profession, is becoming more collaborative, thanks to Cambridge mathematician Tim Gower's Polymath Project.

Because of the rise of collaborative science and the efforts of historians are heroes doomed to go extinct?

I hope not. As Hollywood already knows, we are hard-wired to appreciate narratives based on individuals. This was vividly shown by the 1944 study by psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel in which people were shown an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. Participants told stories about the circle and the little triangle being in love, the big-bad grey triangle trying to steal away the circle, how they embraced and lived happily ever after, and so on.

Recently, brain scans by Chris and Uta Frith of University College London, and Francesca Happe of King's College, revealed activation in temporoparietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex during these scenarios. What is remarkable is that the same brain network is engaged whether considering moving shapes or the mental states of others. There is a human predilection to make narratives out of whatever we see around us, to see agency in a dark shadows and messages in the stars. In these patterns we can find heroes too. The stories that create heroes are important because they cement reputations, crucial for the evolution of cooperation, through a mechanism called indirect reciprocity.

Yes, the reality of the story of a scientific development is always more complex than heroic stories suggest. But we have to be pragmatic when it comes to presenting the 'truth' of a scientific advance to a general audience. This is not a choice between telling people the complete, nuanced, complex story behind a breakthrough and telling tales. When it comes to the public, it is usually a choice between saying nothing of interest or giving an engaging, heroic account. When it comes to selling the magic of science we need to accept that the most powerful way is through heroic stories. 

Moreover, when taken to extremes, the collectivist view can be trite. Every time I drink a great cup of coffee I could thank the farmers in Colombia who grew the beans, those in Brazil who provided the lush green fields of swaying sugar cane used to sweeten the beverage, or the herdsman in Devon who milked the cows so my pick-me-up could be decorated with a little froth. I could also thank the nuclear power workers who provided the electricity to heat my drink, the person who had the bright idea of drinking a beverage based on roasted seeds in the first place, or who patented the first espresso machine. I could go on and list all those hundreds of people who worked in supply lines that straddle the planet to bring the energy, information and ingredients together. I prefer to thank the barista since our amazing ability to cooperate is a defining characteristic of human society and it's a given that many others were involved in almost everything we do.

You are going to complain that hero worship can distort our picture of the way science is done. Yes it can. But the public is sophisticated enough to know that real life is always more complicated than the spectacle of an athlete standing on the podium. Nobody pretends otherwise. In the Paralympics, the heroes routinely thanked their family, sponsor, trainers, friend who paid for driving lessons, sports psychologists, sports scientists and so on for their gold medals. We all know that but that does not diminish the impact of winning a Gold.

You are going to complain that all I am really saying is that we need heroes because the public is slow on the uptake. Not at all. It is just that I believe in talking to people in a language they understand and in a way that ensures that they will be receptive. We need convenient truths that can convey the kernel of science to a general audience without exhaustive emphasis on the collective aspects of discovery, let alone recourse to calculus, jargon and dense descriptions.

Scientists routinely use metaphors to communicate complex ideas and, by the same token, you need heroic characters as metaphors to convey the broad sweep of scientific developments. The point is that heroes work as viral transmitters of science in the crowded realm of ideas. That is important because we need as many people as possible to know what science is about if modern democracy is to function. 

That is why, ultimately, we should be worried about the decline of heroes of science. The culture of scepticism, testing and provisional consensus-forming in scientific research is the most significant achievement of our species and it is time that everyone understood that (OK, it's going to be hard when it comes to the politicians). The real issue is not whether or not we should have heroes—of course we should—but how to ensure that they tell a reasonably truthful story about that amazing and supremely important endeavour we know as science.