Bust the Heroic Myth in Science

‘Paul Nurse believes in heroes of science’ was a line in my Twitter feed one morning recently ‘and so do I’ continued Roger Highfield, who gave the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture  at the Royal Society on this very topic last year. I don’t agree with Roger, as will be very apparent from uncoordinated articles he and I coincidentally wrote in the Daily Telegraph in successive weeks, also last year. Furthermore,  I think that this viewpoint has its dangers when applied in science education, for instance. However, reading the BBC story on which Roger based his statement, I don’t think the President of the Royal Society said precisely what was being attributed to him. It is yet another stage in myth making to translate Paul’s words

There are often big teams involved, but recognising individuals does have an impact that I’m afraid recognising groups or individuals does not.

into ‘believing in heroes‘.  I would interpret what Paul said as a translation of the reality that people want to believe in the heroic myth, not that he himself necessarily does. Maybe he would be happy with Roger’s rephrasing, but I wouldn’t count on it.

That is the trouble with myths: they evolve to suit the audience. They have a comforting feel-good factor (if they aren’t too blood-thirsty and revolting). Think of the Odysseus-like man (I fear they do tend to be male) who triumphs over adversity single-handedly and returns to claim the prize – in his case his wife of long-standing – slaughtering any inconvenient rivals in the process. That is the stuff of ‘heroes’. The fact that Odysseus couldn’t have achieved what he did without the help of the stray god or goddess along the way as well as a shipload of companions/crew conveniently gets forgotten.

That crewload of companions are the rest of the team who, in the scientist-as-hero myth get forgotten too. As often as not these will be the students who do the actual legwork  and who may (or may not) play a direct role in the whole creative process. My own view is that they almost invariably do. It is by supervisor and student(s) talking together, analysing, tearing up results, talking, pointing out the possibility of artefacts, discovering the hypothesis didn’t fit the data, talking, meandering along in the dark, talking (about the darkness), starting the process again, changing the parameters, talking….until finally the lightbulb moment occurs that is equally part of the myth. That Eureka moment is not a single act of switching on the light, it is usually a long drawn out process, with blind allies and half-truths the inevitable acquaintances encountered along the way.

It is too easy for the story being written up to be described with the captain as the only important individual on board, and the rest just a load of hired hands without a brain between them. Unfortunately this is almost exactly the analogy that Tony Hewish (winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize) drew when asked some years ago about whether it was reasonable that Jocelyn Bell Burnell was not included in the Prize. She was his student, the person who had actually spotted the traces of pulsars and who, after an extended period of observation, recognized them as not just noise. Being the ‘captain of the ship’ was the precise phrase Hewish used on the BBC’s programme Beautiful Minds about Jocelyn, leaving to the imagination what subordinate and unimportant role he felt the student had actually played. He did not, in my view, come well out of that interview.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading Nicholas Harberd‘s lively account of a year in the life of a thale-cress plant, and the thoughts that accompanied his study in natural history as he struggled to unblock his creative mind (Seed to Seed). This book is not exactly written in Nicholas-as-hero mode, and I’m sure that’s not how he conceived it, but his students are curiously lacking as a source of inspiration, critique or even discussion. This I think is owing to the ‘conceit’ in which he has written his book as a diary of his own doings and the thoughts he had, coupled with the accompanying emotions along the way. Since the main focus is a single Aradopsis thalania plant in a graveyard somewhere near Norwich, it is perhaps hard to have a second focus based in his lab at the John Innes. Nevertheless this book, written as he himself says ‘to show how science can enhance our vision of the world‘ for the lay-reader is thereby potentially misleading about the way research is carried out. Harberd states in his introduction

My intention was to try to capture a sense of the scientific process within a more general picture of a mind that is engaged with it. Feelings are recorded – and feelings are things that we scientists are often overly constrained in expressing.

Much though I have enjoyed the book, much though I applaud the fact that he is honest enough to discuss feelings, including at some length how he felt ‘stuck’ for so long with no new promising avenue of research in sight for much of the year, I do wonder if his students really were so irrelevant to his discovering the next exciting line of enquiry he was going to follow as is implicitly suggested. By doing this he omits so much of what makes research rewarding.

When I wrote my piece for the Telegraph last year, stimulated by watching Stephen Hawking’s Grand Designs on the Discovery Channel, I was very conscious of the mounting pressure that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to Peter Higgs. As I wrote then

But it’s not just theorists who contributed to the “discovery” of the Higgs Boson. None of them would be in the running for the prize if it weren’t for the multi-disciplinary, international teams that built the LHC. Such large teams are increasingly typical of the way the major breakthroughs are being made.

In the event Higgs did share the prize with another theorist Francois Englert and the prize stimulated much comment about the rightness or the wrongness of this pairing winning or whether some experimentalist such as Lyn Evans (or indeed the whole of CERN) collectively should have been included. This indeed was the question that Paul Nurse was in essence answering in the BBC piece I mention above.  The debate about whether theorists or experimentalists should be judged as the ‘winners’ of such a prize was excellently dissected in a piece on scurvy  by Vanessa Heggie – that is a different issue again. But in the case of Higgs I think it is important to realise how many people contributed to the eventual discovery, even if the Nobel Prize itself is not the mechanism to do this. Hence programmes about Peter Higgs should not, as they do seem to tend to, situate themselves at the hagiographic lone-man-has-great-thought-that-solves-everything end of the spectrum. That is not the way to inform the general public watching of how science is really done and we should not allow ourselves – or them – to fall into such heroic traps.

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13 Responses to Bust the Heroic Myth in Science

  1. I’m not do sure about this. I have found it useful to have heroes. Mine were Andrew Huxley, Bernard Katz and Bert Sakmann. They were heroes because they did experiments themselves, mostly with no more than one co-worker (at least until the time they got Nobel prizes). Furthermore, Sakmann, at least, did this well into the time when most university PIs spent their time largely in writing grants and going to meetings. I often think that science would be improved if there were fewer large groups

    I couldn’t agree more about the appalling way that Jocelyn Bell Burnell was treated by Hewish. I could scarcely believe he’d said things like that. That alone would certainly have prevented him from being a hero of mine.

  2. Geraint Rees says:

    A great deal of our folk beliefs about scientific heroes (and Nobel Prize winners) – the image of the young, great mind making key breakthroughs – comes from a very particular period in history; the development of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s. But things look really quite different when you fast forward to the early 21st century, at least for physics and chemistry. This preprint is quite interesting I think because it suggests (through demonstrating a decline in predictive power of bibliometrics) discipline fragmentation associated with scientific progression and significant expansion in numbers of academics. Making it rather difficult to know who the most important scientists in a discipline are any more.

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0808.2517

  3. cromercrox says:

    I have no heroes. I do, however, have mentors.

  4. Geraint
    Thanks for that interesting reference. But like all other bibliometric papers, it doesn’t show the one thing that matters, The only justification for bibliometrics would be that it had good predictive power -allowed you to pick winners early. That hasn’t been shown. Until it is, bibliometrics is little better than snake-oil,

  5. Frank says:

    In my own meagre attempts to look into the history of particular discoveries or advances I have certainly found that it is often perilously difficult to identify a single person who can clearly take the majority of the credit. But it makes a much better story if you can do that, so there is a tension between readability and accuracy, between ‘history as public engagement’ and history per se.

    Rebekah Higgitt highlighted this in a post in 2012:

    Simplistic and heroic accounts of the history of science cannot be defended by the claim that the public like them

  6. I think there is a difference between having personal heroes, who may inspire you for whatever reason, and thinking that the heroic way of science with lone geniuses is the way science is done. I think David is really referring to the former. No one has yet commented on all those poor students who are written out of the creative process so often.

  7. You are right that I was referring to personal heroes, Nevertheless, in the two cases I know best (Bernard Katz & Bert Sakmann), both did most of the experiments themselves up to the time they got Nobel prizes. I have never heard any of the people who worked with them express the slightest doubt about their central role in the discoveries they made. It’s interesting that their modus operandi was the opposite of the huge groups (with PI largely absent at conferences) that some people now advocate. From what I have read, much the same could be said about Sanger.

  8. Laurence Cox says:

    I quite agree with you and the comments above. There are occasions where you can identify an single person’s contribution at a critical moment, which can very easily become transmogrified into a scientist as hero, but what you cannot do (unlike a scientific experiment) is to re-run it without that contribution. In Higgs and Englert’s case, if they had not had been working on this problem, it is likely that the Higgs mechanism would have been discovered soon afterwards anyway by Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble (I say likely rather than certain, because one cannot identify whether these three were influenced by earlier work by Higgs or Englert).

    A case where I think one can can identify a “scientist as hero” is Andrew Wiles’ solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem, but even here he was putting the last link in a chain of proofs.

    As far as the Nobel Prize for the Higgs boson is concerned, I don’t think that there is anything wrong in awarding it only to the theorists (although the limit of three individuals is now rather restricting), because it does not preclude a future Nobel Prize being awarded to CERN as a corporate body.

  9. Ed Rybicki says:

    Heroes in science? Nah – not unless you are well acquainted with them, before and after fame. Because they often don’t survive long-term exposure outside of their strict area of expertise, and nothing sours you quicker on someone than finding out they’re a womanising / mannising smelly old crochet.
    Reading about Crick & Watson, and meeting Sidney Brenner, cured me of wanting to emulate any of them outside of the lab – or the tearoom, in the case of the venerable Sidney, seeing as that’s apparently where he had his best ideas.
    Strangely enough, I sympathised most, in my literary meetings of great scientists, with Rosalind Franklin. And she came over as being as difficult as Watson.
    People are people, whether they run great labs and get Nobels, or not.

  10. I have not read the Harberd book but a more balanced view of the scientific process might be found in Dave Goulson’s “A sting in the tale”. Among other things, he describes his experiments on bumblebees and, as far as I can tell, always mentions the student or postdoc by name, often including an anecdote about them. He also includes anecdotes about himself, some unflattering.

  11. Alasdair says:

    I’m not a huge fan of the heroic scientist approach to invention and innovation. Presumably it stems from the gentleman scholar era of the 18th and 19th centuries, when scientists were by and large working on their own. It also perpetuates the myth of the loner, slightly unethical scientist, from Frankenstein to Sherlock (see this stereotype-muddled piece from last weeks Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/jan/01/sherlock-holmes-archetypal-scientist). Personally, I’d rather science and scientists are demystified rather than mythologised (as Brian Cox was prone to do in his Science Britannica series).

  12. Great piece, Athene.

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