Musings on scientific celebrity

From "The Dark Ages" column in the Times, by Kate Muir:

"I saw this cartoon the other day: two kids in their school careers office standing before a rack of brochures for future jobs: Celebrity Chef, Celebrity Gardener, Celebrity Painter and Decorator, Celebrity Antiques Dealer…and Celebrity Rodent Exterminator. And it would be funny if a huge swathe of children didn’t think these options were true, for the telly has told them so.

For instance, there’s not a Celebrity Scientist on the list. Children don’t value science as much as they used to. “One of the things that makes people choose a particular career is the chance of becoming a celebrity,” claims Professor Edwin Southern of Oxford University. “Children are not seeing science as a place to go.”

Fame by association, or even transient celebrity, seems far more attractive than hard work, even for the most able children. A survey by Fame Junkies author Jake Halpern of US schoolchildren gave them about ten choices of future careers: 23 per cent wanted to be head of a great university, 13 per cent wanted to be a politician, 9 per cent wanted to be director of a huge company – and 43 per cent wanted to be a “celebrity personal assistant”…."  In another of Halpern’s surveys, "650 schoolchildren [were asked to] to choose their perfect dinner companion from a list that included President Bush, Jesus, 50 Cent, Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton and Einstein. The kids selected J-Lo as their top choice, followed by Jesus – proof that celebrity is the new religion for teenagers. Paris beat Einstein, of course."

Professor Ed Southern, by the way, achieved fame for inventing the Southern Blot. I kid you not. His paper in the Journal of Molecular Biology describing how he made it is probably the most cited paper in biology, after one by a man called Laemmli, who discovered SDS-PAGE (sodium dodecyl sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis). This is a tongue-twister and may sound boring, but the Wikipedia link I’ve provided in the previous sentence leads to a Hollywood-like "demystifying" video of life in the scientific fast lane (sorry about the pun). Laemmli’s 1970 paper describing SDS-PAGE is far and away the highest cited Nature paper ever. Why this should be is another story for another day. But one thing is for sure, Profs Southern and Laemmli did the work first and got the celebrity later. As intimated by Ms Muir, though, scientific celebrity isn’t the same as other types of celebrity: probably nobody outside science has ever heard of Profs Southern or Laemmli, and probably neither gentleman owns a Malibu beach house or a private jet. Yet modern biology depends on the techniques they invented.

P.S. If you are really interested, here’s the abstract of Laemmli’s paper, in its entirety: "Using an improved method of gel electrophoresis, many hitherto unknown proteins have been found in bacteriophage T4 and some of these have been identified with specific gene products. Four major components of the head are cleaved during the process of assembly, apparently after the precursor proteins have assembled into some large intermediate structure."

3 thoughts on “Musings on scientific celebrity

  1. I find this very sad.
    With so much reality TV providing fame to the previously unknown for the 15 minutes and sometimes more, “instant celebrity” certainly does seem to have become an aspiration for the young.
    We need a real character of a science boffin on TV with a science show to make amends.
    I can’t help but think that my emerging interest in zoology when I was a teenager was due to the wonderful “Life on Earth” brought to us by David Attenborough.

  2. Yes, CrimeFic, and although Dawkins is a persuasive ambassador, I think he’s got distracted in later years with the god stuff. We should not be wasting so much effort on fruitless arguments about science v religion (which tend to boil down to personal opinion) but instead finding ways to convey the interest and excitement of science so that those who hear the echo in their hearts when listening can be inspired to pursue the profession.

  3. BTW I must admit I would be tempted to choose Paris H over Einstein for a dinner companion! But that doesn’t mean I think she’s making a more “worthwhile” contribution than him. i.e. you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from these superficial surveys, but I do think that Ms Muir et al. are highlighting a trend for “we can have jobs and material rewards without effort” which is fostered by the advertising-media values and culture with which we have to coexist and which is relentlessly broadcast to many children from day 1 of their lives.

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