At the end of the twentieth century, a group of British scientists emerged as high-profile researchers, authors and public intellectuals. Vogue magazine in 1997 called them the “pop scientists of the 1990s” and they were protagonists in what The Independent called in 2001 “an age when science [was] dominated by its media superstar authors”. These scientists became well-known outside their scientific fields, their marketed books becoming bestsellers, their talks packing out literary festivals, their opinions being described and dissected in mass media publications as diverse as The Times and Hello!

But what is a superstar scientist? What are its essential features? Is scientific fame different from sporting, literary or filmic fame? This paper addresses these questions, exploring the phenomena of the celebrity scientist, defining its central characteristics, explaining the process of its creation and describing its social role. It does this through an analysis of three scientists: physicist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time (1988), the highest-selling popular science book ever published; evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, author of books including The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2007) and the UK’s first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science; and neurologist Susan Greenfield, former director of the Royal Institution and author of books including The Private Life of the Brain (2001) and Tomorrow’s People (2004).

The paper, using novel approaches from the emerging field of celebrity studies, argues that these three scientists are represented in mass media as celebrities. They share characteristics with famous writers, politicians, film and sports stars, characteristics including their representation as unique individuals whose public and private lives merge, their commodified image being bound up with promotion, and their persona embodying abstract values, ideas and ideologies.

The three subjects also share characteristics, this paper argues, with iconic historical scientists, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan. It examines how the distinctive image of each celebrity scientist has been fashioned through a combination of the subjects’ own writings and television work, their interviews and profiles, their intertextual representations in fiction and non-fiction, and a linking of their work with recurring concepts in the history of ideas. The paper argues also that the subjects have come to represent the strongly mediatised and commercialised character of contemporary science.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Hawking, Dawkins and Greenfield
Case studies of the celebrity scientist

Declan Fahy   School of Communication, American University

At the end of the twentieth century, a group of British scientists emerged as high-profile researchers, authors and public intellectuals. Vogue magazine in 1997 called them the “pop scientists of the 1990s” and they were protagonists in what The Independent called in 2001 “an age when science [was] dominated by its media superstar authors”. These scientists became well-known outside their scientific fields, their marketed books becoming bestsellers, their talks packing out literary festivals, their opinions being described and dissected in mass media publications as diverse as The Times and Hello!

But what is a superstar scientist? What are its essential features? Is scientific fame different from sporting, literary or filmic fame? This paper addresses these questions, exploring the phenomena of the celebrity scientist, defining its central characteristics, explaining the process of its creation and describing its social role. It does this through an analysis of three scientists: physicist Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time (1988), the highest-selling popular science book ever published; evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, author of books including The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2007) and the UK’s first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science; and neurologist Susan Greenfield, former director of the Royal Institution and author of books including The Private Life of the Brain (2001) and Tomorrow’s People (2004).

The paper, using novel approaches from the emerging field of celebrity studies, argues that these three scientists are represented in mass media as celebrities. They share characteristics with famous writers, politicians, film and sports stars, characteristics including their representation as unique individuals whose public and private lives merge, their commodified image being bound up with promotion, and their persona embodying abstract values, ideas and ideologies.

The three subjects also share characteristics, this paper argues, with iconic historical scientists, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan. It examines how the distinctive image of each celebrity scientist has been fashioned through a combination of the subjects’ own writings and television work, their interviews and profiles, their intertextual representations in fiction and non-fiction, and a linking of their work with recurring concepts in the history of ideas. The paper argues also that the subjects have come to represent the strongly mediatised and commercialised character of contemporary science.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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