As an avid reader (If we trust my goodreads 214 books in ten years) I have always praised myself for not judging a book by its cover. Thanks to that I have discovered some of the best books I have read (Atonement by Ian McEwan for example). But when I first looked at Declan Fahy’s new book “The New Celebrity Scientists” I had a hard time not doing it.I do must say, ever since I first heard about the book I got really really excited. I like to know stories about the social side of science and this looked like a great opportunity to read something current (most of my readings so far have centered on the past of science) and I am still really excited about the book despite a few things I have not liked so far (not liking a few things does not equal thinking the book is bad).The cover shows the names of eight high profile scientists that have achieved celebrity status: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould, Susan Greenfield, and James Lovelock. The book is meant to study how they achieved celebrity and how that celebrity impacted society and they scientific status.
One of the first things I noticed is that there is only one woman in the list. Before freaking out I went through my mind and think about any female scientists that was high profile enough to the likes of Hawkins or Dawkins: Jane Goodall !! The cover is not enough to tell me anything about why Goodall is not on the book or if there is any other female scientists that should be there or even if the author has a hypothesis of why female scientists don’t achieve celebrity status. Another first impression, a couple of the people there are known twitter jerks. But moving on from the cover…
After reading the introduction I have a few questions and thoughts of my own that I don’t know if the book is going to address further:
1) The author mentions that because there is a woman and an African American on the list shows the big diversity one can find in celebrity science. I disagree, having a list of 6 typical white male academics plus an african american plus a woman I wouldn’t describe as showing the diversity of this. Well it sort of does in a way, it shows there is not diversity in science really. But I really hope this gets addressed on the book.
2) He refers as these scientists as part of a new “elite”. I am not sure what that means. I know quite a few people that could read this list and think it is not a list one would like to be on. Like saying is a list of non-respectable scientists, or not a positive list. However, other people could say it is an amazing list full of awesome people. It is a matter of opinion. So I am not sure where the author is going with “elite” but I sure want to find out. Specially because a lot of the people in this list (at least 3) have trouble overcoming the “sagan effect”(the scientific popularity of a scientist with the general public is considered to be inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of that scientist’s scientific work.) and they are not taken seriously anymore by the scientific community. The Sagan effect side of this book is something I am really interested in. With all the controversy surrounding climate change, vaccines, evolution we now have scientists that want to be heard by society but for reaching out they have to risk falling into the Sagan effect. So I am really excited to see how this plays out.
Now it is important to note the author is a Professor in Communication and has no hard science training. I don’t bring this up like in a patronizing or bad way. His background can show a fresh face to things we scientists inside the bubble don’t notice. And he can make a better study of how media and scientists relate and how that affects society. That is his expertise. But it does mean what he thinks is necessary to become an “elite” might be different to what science as a group might think. So along the way I may disagree with his definitions or ideas because I have a different mindset and background. But it is important to keep the mind open to what he set up to say in this book.
I won’t know anything else until I read the book. So I have decided to share here in biomolbioandco my thoughts and impressions. This is not meant to be only a book review or anything of the sort (though I will comment on the things I think are good or bad). But what I hope to do is to use each chapter, each scientists, as a vehicle to talk about different issues about society’s relationship with science and science education. It is an experiment so please bear with me. I am not sure yet how it will play out but let’s try and see 🙂
I’ll see you on the next post on this series.