In 2009, USA Today conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans, asking them a very simple question: “Can you name one famous scientist?” The results were depressing. About 23 percent of respondents couldn’t name a single scientist. Of those who were named, none are currently living:
47% named Albert Einstein
23% could not name anyone
6% named Marie Curie
4% named Louis Pasteur
4% named Thomas Edison
But that’s just what occurred when people were asked to name a single scientist. What would happen if you changed the question so respondents were required to name one who’s still alive? In 2011, Research America did just that, and 70 percent couldn’t name a single living scientist. Of those who were named, Stephen Hawking received the most recognition:
There’s been a growing worry in recent years that science communication is in a state of crisis, and that the very scientists who conduct the groundbreaking research that propels scientific discovery forward have been absolutely atrocious at explaining their research to the general public at large. This lack of communication has dire consequences, not only because it has allowed anti-science movements — denial of climate change, anti-vaxxers, disbelief in evolution — to flourish, but also because a dearth of scientists to look up to and idolize makes the job of recruiting future scientists that much harder.
I was reminded of these two surveys this weekend while watching the live public reaction to SpaceX’s attempts to land a rocket on a stadium-sized platform. Currently, the rockets we use to launch objects into space always burn up in the earth’s atmosphere or plummet to the ocean floor, a predicament that results in tremendous waste. SpaceX’s efforts to land a rocket, if eventually successful, would drastically cut down on the cost of space launch. Though the landing on Saturday wasn’t perfect — the rocket landed too hard, resulting in fire and damage — it was hailed as a breakthrough moment in space technology. And live-tweeting the event, to the joy of the thousands of people following along, was SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk:
There’s been a flurry of tech pundits who have recently taken it upon themselves to name “the next Steve Jobs,” and though the verdict is far from settled, many have rushed to bestow Musk the honor. It’s not hard to see why. Musk is the head of not one, but two companies that have shown potential for radically changing the trajectory of both automobile and space flight technology. In terms of vision, he maintains a Jobs-like outlook that rejects the status-quo and seeks to push the limits of what is possible.
But while Jobs certainly had tremendous influence over technological innovation, those who knew him readily admit his strengths didn’t lie with his technological or scientific acumen (he was known as a mediocre programmer). Instead, his real talent rested with his business sense and eye for design. His — and by extension Apple’s — successes were a result of his ability to push his underlings into agreeing to parameters and deadlines nobody thought possible, all while maintaining an unflinching impatience with design flaws. Jobs’s approach was anathema to compromise, and that rigid adherence to perfection helped his company earn a cult-like following with consumers.
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Our fascination with Musk, on the other hand, is, I think, subtly but fundamentally different. While he does deserve credit for his ability to manage and scale companies, it’s his bona fides as an engineer and scientist that have made him such a beloved figure. In all the press coverage of Musk, the most consistent theme we see when journalists sum up his brilliance is his willingness to roll up his sleeves and engage himself with the very engineering that makes his companies so revolutionary. Consider the eruption of news headlines when, in 2013, he released the conceptual design for the hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system that would shorten the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco to a mere 35 minutes. Musk wasn’t even announcing the construction of the hyperloop, but was merely releasing the design so that some government institution or corporation could one day see it through. Yet the blog post announcing the release was arguably the most talked-about news item of the day, making headlines around the world.
We’ve seen this sort of adulation applied to Musk as he’s tackled some of our most pressing issues in engineering and science, whether it’s constructing a battery with long-range energy storage or his release of all Tesla’s patents to the public with the promise he would not pursue any intellectual property lawsuits against those who utilize those patents.
I think there’s an argument to be made, then, that Musk is currently the world’s most famous scientist, and his celebrity status should be embraced by those searching for a figure that millions of future scientists will idolize and emulate. He’s our science ambassador, the greatest we’ve seen since Albert Einstein’s rise to fame.
I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, and what’s struck me is how quickly he catapulted to world fame despite a general lack of understanding of his research, especially among non-scientists. In 1919, after Einstein’s theory of general relativity was confirmed by photographs taken of an eclipse, the press coverage was gargantuan in scope and reach. The Times of London hailed it as a “REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE” while the New York Times declared that “Men of science more or less agog over results of eclipse observations.” When Einstein visited the U.S. for the first time in 1921, a crowd of thousands awaited his arrival in New York, and he continued to pack auditoriums everywhere he went during his two-month tour of the country.
Though Einstein certainly was a genius and his discoveries revolutionary, why did he receive such widespread adoration while his equally-brilliant contemporaries like Niels Bohr and Max Planck — both of whom made revolutionary discoveries in quantum theory — did not? Isaacson summed up Einstein’s appeal thusly:
Einstein had just the right ingredients to be transformed into a star. Reporters, knowing that the public was yearning for a refreshing international celebrity, were thrilled that the newly discovered genius was not drab or reserved academic. Instead, he was a charming 40-year-ld, just passing from handsome to distinctive, with a wild burst of hair, rumpled informality, twinkling eyes, and a willingness to dispense wisdom in bite-sized quips and quotes.
I mention all this not to argue that Musk’s intellect should be compared to Einstein’s, but rather as evidence that the key to widespread recognition lies not merely with discovery, but in how the underlying science is communicated to the public at large. Musk, through his eccentricities and public persona, has managed to break through whatever barrier that prevents the layman from caring about science and has evoked a sense of wonder that extends far outside the scientific community. So while his companies may one day rival Apple in terms of market capitalization and consumer adoption, I’d like to hope that his real legacy, when his official biography is written, is his ability to inspire tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. Musk, with his legions of fans and supporters, is making science cool again.
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Image via Forbes