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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Scientific Role Models

By August 29, 2009

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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!


August 29, 2009 at 9:03 am
(1) Leifb says:

My role model is Faraday, but he’s dead, so…. How about Brian May, an astrophysicist with rock star “cool” credentials? Or Brian Cox (himself no stranger to the rock and roll stage), a publiciser of science especially the LHC. Richard Dawkins also comes to mind as evolution’s rottweiler.

August 29, 2009 at 9:26 am
(2) Nancy says:

She isn’t a physicist, but how about Jane Goodall making the list? At the age of 75,her work with chimpanzees is phenomenal. Thanks

August 30, 2009 at 1:43 am
(3) Russ says:

Roger Penrose. Not only has he worked with Stephen Hawking, but he’s the father of twistors and a number of a other theories that rank very highly in theoretical physics.

August 31, 2009 at 3:26 pm
(4) dennis says:

I am currently interested in the grand unified field theory…. achieved via computational experimental informatics. The theory is the computational synergy between astroparticle physics colliders and the linear accelerator style colliders that LHC uses. The problem with knowing scientists is that the theories of are not in a compact field form. It makes us seem not that interesting. Know what I mean?

September 3, 2009 at 12:40 am
(5) Frank says:

I’d just like to mention 3 of my favorite scientists that are still alive today. Peter Higgs, co-inventor of what his now his namesake, the Higgs field and the Higgs Particle. Also, I’m a fanatic for Alex Fillipenko and Michio Kaku, who are both actively engaged in scientific research, but also have a great media presence via The History Channel’s “The Universe”

September 7, 2009 at 9:43 am
(6) Barbara Rymarczyk says:

How about Lee Smolin or Leornard Susskind? Also, from biology, Craig Vetner, a self made scientist.

September 7, 2009 at 12:51 pm
(7) GvU says:

Nice topic. Most of my living science role models, besides being active in their fields, are also prominent educators, many of them actively reaching out to explain to the public that science is an important part of our culture. They are: Lawrence Krauss, Alex Filippenko, Walter Lewin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Sir Martin Rees. Non-physicists: Sir David Attenborough (naturalist), Robert Ballard (oceanographer) and Paul Sereno (paleontologist).

September 7, 2009 at 12:56 pm
(8) Mike Stahl says:

I have lots of favorite scientists (and science historians and science journalists). I’ve never ranked them and my interests change. Here goes:
Scientist-Brian Hare
Historian-John Gribbin
Journalist-David Quammen

In six months these may all change.

September 7, 2009 at 1:00 pm
(9) Paula says:

Do they really need to be alive? I see no objection to a role model being dead. The role model status persists.
Anyway, my suggestions are Stephen Hawkins, of course, Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, Joel Primack, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov… to name a few. On Biology, I’d say Darwin (obvious) and Stephen Gould.

September 7, 2009 at 1:15 pm
(10) ahsan says:

I think my role model is a person with highest h-index, the famous string theorist Edward Witten.

September 7, 2009 at 3:52 pm
(11) Luis Gomez says:

This is an example how the values are inverted. Everybody know who was Michael Jackson, but very few people know who is Stephen Hawking and worse what he is doing.

September 8, 2009 at 1:17 am
(12) Eric says:

James Clerk Maxwell – developed classical electromagnetic equations, etc etc etc.

September 11, 2009 at 12:45 am
(13) Jolyon says:

Ok, let’s go with some physicists who are alive:
Nicola Cabibbo
Howard Georgi
Steven Weinberg
I’m going to say John Wheeler too, although he sadly departed us recently

If we’re entertaining recently deceased physicists too, then my votes are for some people whose names appear repeatedly, no matter which field you study:
Hans Bethe
Richard Feynman
Lev Landau
If I am ever half the physicist that any of those three were, I’ll be a very happy man.

September 14, 2009 at 9:50 am
(14) David says:

My role model is Michael Behe. He coined irreducable complexity and other terms of intelligent design. Darwin was brilliant but was wrong in many ways.

September 14, 2009 at 10:03 am
(15) Martin says:

“…approximately 9 out of every 20 people asked couldn’t even name a single scientist.”

As disheartening as that is, it’s simply a reflection of the state of science education in the U.S.a state that hasn’t changed much in the past 40 years. What’s more shocking to me (and perhaps an indication of the depth of this country’s scientific illiteracy) is that there may very well be some science teachers included in that statistic: A few years ago I was chatting with a high school physics teacher I had just met at a social function. His mannerisms and speech pattern reminded me of Richard Feynman, so, in passing, I asked if he had ever met the Nobel laureate. To my absolute horror, he hadn’t a clue who Feynman was.

September 14, 2009 at 10:11 am
(16) Luis Gomez says:

Today I felt ashamed because a scientist that started the green revolution and save million of lives from starvation I could not recall his name, but I know quite well who was Michael Jackson. Now I am sure my values are inverted.

September 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm
(17) Martin says:

“Bill Gates is an entrepreneur & computer programmer” – True.

“…arguably very close to a scientist” – Not even close.

“… and one that I would normally let slide on the list” – You’d be seriously misleading the already “scientifically challenged” among your readers.

September 14, 2009 at 2:34 pm
(18) Ron Williams says:

What about:

Abhay Ashtekar
John Baez
Michio Kaku
Brian Greene
Roger Penrose
Kip Thorne
Richard Dawkins (although maybe not practicing recently)

All working scientists (mainly theoretical physicists), and known to the public via published books accessible to the layman.

Unfortunately, I am extremely lacking in my knowledge of non-physicists… :( – except for Dawkins, whose opposition to superstition as a means of scientific inquiry strikes a chord.

September 28, 2009 at 3:42 am
(19) Pamela Carlin says:

I would love you to include Neil Degrasse Tyson! Not only is he a great physicist, but he’s done more than most American scientists to advance scientific literacy in the general poulation.

October 23, 2010 at 7:03 am
(20) summer says:

Also you may read about it here

October 23, 2010 at 7:05 am
(21) Mike says:

what about this

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