In the book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (review coming when I finish the book), authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum mention a late 2007 study where participants were asked to name a scientific role model. Sadly, 44 percent of the respondents had no clue.
In other words, approximately 9 out of every 20 people asked couldn't even name a single scientist.
Of those who could come up with an answer, the top three answers were:
As the authors mention, these are "people who are either not scientists or not alive."
If you're curious, Einstein's the one who's not alive, but he is certainly a scientist. Of the others, Bill Gates is an entrepreneur & computer programmer (arguably very close to a scientist and one that I would normally let slide on the list) and Al Gore is a politician who made a science-themed film.
I should also point out that I, as someone who writes regularly about science, am also not a scientist. This is sometimes confusing to those who write to me with the goal of trying to enlist my aid in conducting research on their latest theory to "fix Einstein" or reconcile quantum physics and gravity. (You'd be amazed how often I get these requests.) I report on newsworthy scientific events, but do not actually perform science on a regular basis myself.
So, overall, it seems clear that the majority of Americans cannot name a single living scientist who should be a role model. It's my plan to change that, and I hope you'll help me.
I will be creating a list of living scientific role models for this site. They don't need to be physicists (although since this is a physics site, they'll probably dominate). So please, comment on this blog post to give me ideas for physicists to add.
First on the list will be one of my favorite role model physicists - Stephen Hawking. Talk about brilliance, tenacity, and overcoming adversity! Plus, from what I've read, he's cordial even to his opponents in a debate and has quite a sense of humor.
What other physicists should make the list? Let me know!