The Einstein myth: Why the cult of personality is bad for science

We love citing the big names in science. Einstein. Curie. Sagan. Nye The Science Guy. But does that lower the bar for the rest of the workaday scientists out there?

Michelle Thaller: So Jonathan you ask a question that actually gets to the heart of a lot of my ideas about science and culture. And you ask about the celebrity culture. We hear about these famous scientists, it goes Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson; we know of these wonderful kind of larger than life personalities, and does that really reflect what the practice of science is?

And in fact, to me, this is actually a deeper question because I think it’s one of the ways that people are kept out of science. We hold up examples about these incredible, heroic, sort of seemingly perfect people, and then we compare ourselves to them. And this is exactly the same as comparing ourselves to supermodels and then looking at the way we look, or comparing ourselves to athletes or to incredibly famous rock stars. So much of our world right now seems to be set up to keep you dissatisfied with who you are and keep you feeling insecure. And in science I keep being asked by people, is it possible that I am smart enough to be a scientist? Do I have what it takes to be a scientist?

And there’s also this sad corollary of all of the people who contact me and say, “Well I see you on television, you must be brilliant. I couldn’t possibly do what you do. I wasn’t good at math. I don’t have the sort of brain that you have.”

All my life this has made me feel different and strange and not right. The very moment that I started to get interested in science I was a very small kid. I was just very curious about space, about geology and rocks, I started to be told, “Wow you’re really different, you’re not the same as all of us,” and “You’re a girl; Wow, that’s even stranger!” Even when people we’re trying to be kind, what they were doing was telling me that in some way I wasn’t right.

The celebrity culture of science and the idea that you need a special personality, a special type of brain to do science, are some of the most harmful ideas about science that our culture has come up with. I often have to deal with – for example, the idea of Albert Einstein: Albert Einstein was incredibly brilliant and he revolutionized our understanding of the universe. But there’s a myth about him—and you may be familiar with it—that Albert Einstein “wasn’t really part of the scientific establishment,” he was “just working in a patent office,” “he just pulled all of this out of his brain,” “it was just him working alone.” And that wasn’t true at all! Albert Einstein was, in fact, part of science.

He was a professor, he was finishing up his doctorate when he was working in the patent office. He was part of a culture and the establishment of science. And he wasn’t working alone. Some of the major parts of his theory, for example the special theory of relativity that deals with how time and slows down when you go close to the speed of light, had been largely been formalized and set up before by people like Lorentz, and even parts of general relativity, his idea about gravitation and the curvature of space, had been done by people like LeMaitre and others.

Einstein was absolutely brilliant at seeing that different theories that people were working on could come together into a wonderful coherent whole. Even he admitted he wasn’t particularly great at the mathematics and he had other people that assisted him with actually formalizing the mathematics of how gravity could work.

So Albert Einstein himself would’ve said that he was brilliant in collaboration, that he actually pulled lots of things together. He wasn’t just a lone person pulling stuff out of his head from first principles just by magic. The idea that “science is done by brilliant people who are different than you” is just a way to keep people OUT of science.

There is nothing more difficult about learning science than there is about learning anything. It takes years to learn all the physics you need, for example, to get a doctorate in physics, but I always looked at it like learning a foreign language: you learn things slowly step-by-step, you practice; it’s difficult, but you keep going.

I don’t know why we set science as something different than learning a language. Nobody would say to you “you simply do not have the mental capability to learn French.” Everybody can. There are some people that are naturally brilliant at languages, it may come faster to them, it may be something that they don’t have to work on as hard as other people, but there’s nobody that can’t learn a language, and there’s nothing magical about science.

I have a brain that tends towards the creative and the imaginative, I’m not very linear, I’m not very logical, I’m not very organized, and I kept being told I didn’t have the “right personality to do science.” And there’s nothing about what science actually is that demands any type of personality. You can learn something in many different ways, and honestly, you can learn anything if you take the time and if you practice.

Science can be taught in a very intimidating way, and I suffered from that. I spent most of my college years so scared and confused I wouldn’t even ask the professor a question because I felt so much shame that I basically hadn’t understood anything the whole semester, but you take things over and over again, and slowly they build up.

The idea that we are led by single, brilliant people is an idea that, I think, has at its core privilege and exclusion. And it’s time for us to take back science, imagination, creativity. You are enough, right now, to do this. You are smart enough, you are brilliant enough, you have everything you need. You can be a scientist if you want to, you don’t need me to actually turn something on inside your mind, you don’t need to have been born with something magical. You’re a scientist, and you can just ask a question.

We love citing the big names in science. Einstein. Curie. Sagan. Nye (The Science Guy). But Michelle Thaller of NASA thinks that perhaps the whole so-called 'celebrity scientist' idea makes it more difficult for regular people to think they could ever be one. "The idea that we are led by single, brilliant people is an idea that, I think, has at its core privilege and exclusion," she posits, "And it’s time for us to take back science, imagination, creativity." You can follow Michelle on Twitter here.

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