Can Scientists Ever Be Rock Stars?

By Chris Mooney | June 11, 2009 11:30 am

My latest Science Progress column explores this question, inspired by the recently launched GQ/Geoffrey Beene Rock S.O.S. campaign (“Rock Stars of Science”), on the web here and in glossy portfolio here. (Thanks to Mary Spiro for drawing this to my attention in the first place).

The GQ photo spread, which you should all see–I’ve included one image at right–pairs together researchers with musicians in what turns out to be some seriously intriguing images–but whether they shatter stereotypes of scientists as nerdy and weird (as opposed to reinforcing them), I’m not so sure. As I write:

Some of the researchers featured in GQ get beyond the geek, but mostly, the contrast between them and the rock stars is sharp and heightened.

It is particularly difficult to miss the fact that while the rock stars are far more diverse, the scientists are all older, white, and male. Yes, it catches your eye to see such scientists rocking out. But it would be even more bracing to see female and racially diverse young researchers—with tattoos! Believe me, they’re out there.

Carl, they should have brought you in on this.

Still, I am a fan of the Rock S.O.S. campaign for the following reason:

I’ve long felt that when it comes to the cultural standing of science in America, our problem is a lot bigger than a poor educational system, bad test scores, or rampant scientific illiteracy. It is at least as troubling that very few Americans can name Fauci, Varmus, or Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute—and that very few American kids want to be them. A scientific research career, if you can get it, is a pretty good life—one could set one’s sights far, far lower. But it’s not clear that as a culture today, we recognize this.

And so my conclusion–if we want to pair science with celebrity, this is just the beginning:

Next stop for Geoffrey Beene: In the pages of Sports Illustrated, I want to see young, athletic scientists catching passes from Peyton and Eli Manning.

You can read the full column here. What do you think, is the Rock S.O.S. campaign a good thing?

Comments (22)

  1. I think it’s pretty good for the scientists to be in GQ any time, but I also think it’s a pretty lame collection of aging “rock stars.”

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/sciencenotfiction/2009/06/04/trend-watch-scientists-as-fashion-accessories/

  2. CW

    I don’t really consider Seal or Josh Grobin to be rock stars. But I thought that I’d see Queen guitarist, Brian May, included. He’s practically a bridge between the two professions.

  3. I keep telling the readers of my local paper that I will believe we have made a fundamental change when academic achievement, especially in the sciences, is given 10% of the ink that high school sports achieves. The only time it happens is the annual graduation day spread and even that often focuses on athletes. This is in a town that has been named to be the new official home of the American Institute of Mathematics.

  4. Cameron

    When I think about my students, I don’t think they’ll find much to connect with a bunch of white guys over 50. Definitely needs to be more diverse and young, with some musicians that they might actually listen to.

  5. I don’t think scientists should ever strive (or be made into) “rock stars”. Why? Because I don’t think it is a “Good Thing” for a scientist to become bigger than the work they are doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for introducing kids into the possibilities of science and the exciting things that can be done with a science career. However, I do think there are better ways of doing it than plastering the photos of a few geeks into GQ.

    For example, my sister has invited yours truly, to teach her class about the scientific method. I’ll get to go in and speak to the kids for a day, talking to them about how science is done, why it’s cool, why it impacts their lives on a daily basis, and why they should strive to excel at it. I think those real life experiences for students are more productive than any magazine spread. How many scientists populate the United States? How hard would it be to get them to visit one school, once a year? Heck, what if they volunteered once a year to judge a science fair, and gave a talk at the same event?

    What if federal funding came with such a stipulation?

  6. Celebrity and celebrity worship is one of our culture’s yuckier phenomena; why extend it to science?

    I’m fine with scientists becoming popular. But I don’t want them becoming more concerned with their image than their work, becoming caricatures of themselves and trapped by the ideas that made them.

    That’s not good for science, not good for the public, and just not necessary.

  7. Mr.Poindexter.

    What about the NYC Rock-IT Science show in March of this year? http://www.rockitscifest.com

    The Amygdaloids were featured and band members include 4 scientists from NYU.

    Joseph LeDoux(guitarist) – Neuroscientist
    Tyler Volk (guitarist) – Environmental Scientist
    Daniela Schiller (drummer) – Ph.D. in Neurology
    Nina Galbraith Curley (bass) – Doctoral studies in psychology

    Also, check out the geneticist Pardis Sabeti from Harvard.

    Poindexter.

  8. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Yeah, Joe LeDoux is up in arms about not being mentioned here—check his recent Tweet:

    being followed by Discover Mag. Looked at the their website and saw their rock stars of science thing. and not an Amygdaloid to be found.

  9. Callinectes

    Have you all seen the new Intel commercials (“our rock stars aren’t like yours”). I think they’ve got a slightly (very slight) better handle on this than GQ. Still not perfect. There was a good article on this in the Oregonian awhile back, I’ll dig it out…
    http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2009/05/intel_ad_campaign_remakes_rese.html

    I had a very “cool” science teacher in seventh grade. He challenged us the first day of class, that if he ever made an error and we caught him, he’d drink his pee. Well, he did and we caught him; next class he basically extracted the water and salt (much like those NASA astronauts did recently, I imagine), whipped out a hidden bucket of KFC, sprinkled a drumstick with the salt, and washing it all down with the water. That was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

    Ditto on the selection of younger and more diverse scientists!!

  10. Scientists should not be rock stars. Scientists should rock stars, like George Gamow and Hans Bethe did.

  11. MAC

    Scientist and rock star are two mutually exclusive professions. As students, the latter never paid much attention in class, while the former did nothing but. That’s oversimplifying, of course, but they still ended up on opposite ends of the employment spectrum, with skills that would be totally useless to their counterparts. So no, scientists can’t be rock stars – but I’m sure they have just as much trouble fitting into “normal” society.

  12. monya de

    Check the former drummer of the Offspring (gynecologist),
    Daniel Levitin (rocker turner cognitive scientist). In the appeal sense of rock star, Kary Mullis, Hans Keirstead (I once saw this neuroscientist rolling into a concert in Los Angeles with what looked like a fashion model), Mark Humayun (young, brash and crying to cure blindness!). Agree on Brian May.

  13. Yeah, Joe LeDoux is up in arms about not being mentioned here …

    Boo hoo. Exactly my point in post #5.

  14. Revyloution

    Im with CW, where’s my Brian May? Legend guitarist who also has a PHD in astronomy?!?

    Also, I consider Prof Brian Cox to be in the rockstar category. He’s handsome, married to a super hot wife, travels the world, does fantastic tv shows, and is farking brilliant.

  15. StarDuff

    Science has always been “rockstar” it is a failure of the media or public not to take notice of that direct correlation when applying it to all life inside and outside no matter how past or present. Science will always be “rockstar” except not bound by the verbal limitation of the 2009 street slang. So hype it up media nothing is in vain! :)

    P.S. I mean that in the best possible way…Promise.

  16. CoffeeCupContrails

    I’m glad Callinectes mentioned the Intel ads. It has gotten some pretty positive reviews, at least in the geek circles (… ok, so Redditors love the new ads). Also, shows like Big Bang Theory and Numb3rs, while not perfect, do much more good than harm in the short term.

    Just last year, I had a 50-something cab driver (white male, if that matters) in Appleton, Wisconsin tell me how Numb3rs was one of his all time favorite shows and how he looks forward to watching it every week. As much as that excited me, the even better part was when he told me that all the creative talk about math made him want to go back and finish high-school and that was what he was doing these days. Granted, high-school math may not be that exciting, but that’s beside the point.

    And I do think it is one of the ways to go towards promoting science. This needs to be a multipronged approach, making an impact in both the classroom and the living room. Intelligence needs to be celebrated. The first step needs to be good PR, look good before you approach them with the serious stuff.

  17. QUASAR

    Scientists should be the ones rullig the world!

  18. TomJoe — I don’t agree that it’d be good if every scientist went into the classroom once a year to talk to students about science. It’d be great if more did, but there are a lot of scientists out there who are excellent scientists, but whom we don’t *want* to put in front of children to represent science….

    The unholy pairing of not-fully-overlapping skillsets dogs science. We demand that our best researchers also teach, and by the same token we demand that those who are teaching most of our college students be excellent researchers. Does this really make sense?

    By the same token, every NSF grant has to have a public outreach component. Often, this means saddling down grant applications with a component that the person applying for the grant doesn’t care about, so some sort of by-the-numbers or just-for-show education/outreach component gets added into the grant. I fully agree that NSF should spend a fraction of its budget on education and outreach, but I don’t think it makes sense to demand that of each and every single grant. Let the scientists do the science without worrying about public outreach if they aren’t interested in it, and send the education and outreach money to the people who will use it best.

    It’s not as bad as it was in Carl Sagan’s day, but it’s still true that scientists view public communication as a “lesser” calling, even if they recognize that it’s necessary. I wish that weren’t so; I wish that those who share science with the public, and who educate the public, were viewed as being on just as high a pinnacle as the pure researchers. It will take some serious structural changes, however, to enable that much of an attitude change.

    (Indeed, it’s kind of ironic that the ‘rock star’ scientists– Carl Sagan and his ilk,– get looked down on by other scientists for exactly the reasons that they are admired by the public.)

  19. John Kwok

    @ Rob –

    Having spent several evenings and all day today as a volunteer and a participant at the second annual World Science Festival, I am convinced that it is necessary for scientists – but only those who are effective and willing communicators – to do more public outreach, especially when so many issues require some understanding of science and technology. It is for this reason that I strongly commend what Columbia University physicist and mathematician Brian Greene and journalist Tracy Day (Mrs. Brian Greene) have done in creating this festival. While not as much science can be disseminated effectively in the short span of a few days, as for example, in a secondary school or college course, I think it succeeded in helping to raise the local New York City public’s awareness of and interest in current scientific and technological issues.

    Sincerely yours,

    John

    P. S. Yes I would certainly consider Brian Greene to be a scientific “rock star”. He has his groupies, including one woman I heard wondering where his office was in the Columbia University building which we were visiting for an evening talk given by AMNH invertebrate paleobiologist Niles Eldredge.

  20. miko

    1. None of those people are rock stars… they’re pop celebrities

    2. Apparently scientists (of note, or worthy of pop celebrity) are all white men. Although, this being GQ, I suppose a female scientist would be expected to pose in wet underwear.

  21. It goes without saying that I am WAY for this sort of thing. We have a section of our TSS blog called ‘Scelebs’ where we profile scientists that are capturing the eye of mainstream media. In order for the next generation of scientists to be inspired to stay in the field, we have to have to make science careers aspirational. Part of this will requiring mainstreaming science in many and diverse ways. Lets see some scientists on David Letterman and Oprah, as well as Jon Stewart.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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