The road to scientific character: The proof is in the product

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Feynman-blackboardA few years ago, historian of science Steven Shapin had a review of Steven Gimbel's capsule biography of Einstein. The biography itself is quite readable, but Shapin also holds forth with some of his more general thoughts on the art of scientific biography and the treatment of famous scientific figures. He mulls over the tradition of writing about scientific lives that initially tended to treat its inhabitants as scientific heroes but which in recent times has sought more to illuminate their human flaws. Pointing out the triumphs as well as the follies of your subjects is of course an important thing to keep in mind for preventing a biography from turning into a hagiography, but as Shapin points out, one can bend over backward in doing this and err on the other side:

"The “human face” genre was an understandable response to hagiography, but more recently it has lapped over into a commitment to dirt-digging. Some modern scientific biographies mean to show great scientists as not just human but all-too-human, needing to be knocked off their pedestals. Galileo—we are now told—was a self-publicizing courtier, sucking up to his Medici patrons; Robert Hooke was a miser who molested his niece; Newton was a paranoid supervisor of torture who cheated in a priority dispute; Pasteur was a careerist power broker who cut ethical corners; even gentle Darwin was channeling laissez-faire capitalist ideology and using illness as an excuse to get colleagues to face down his scientific opponents on his behalf. Weary of stories about the virtues attached to transcendent genius, biographers have brought their scientific subjects down to Earth with a thunderous thump."

This view does not quite conform to the post-modernist ideal of treating every achievement as a subjective product of its times rather than as the unique work of an individual, but it does go a bit too far in discounting the nature of the few genuinely intellectually superior minds the human race has produced. The approach also tends to conflate people's scientific achievements with the social or personal aspects of their lives and somehow asks us to consider one only in the "context" of the other. But it seems odd to say the least to declare that Feynman is not a role model for science communication when millions of young people of all colors, nationalities, genders and political views have been deeply inspired by his teaching, books and science (more on this later). When it comes to being a successful model for science communication, shouldn't the product speak for itself rather than some preconceived ideology?

As Shapin alludes to in his piece, for some reason there has been what I see as a completely unnecessary tussle between two camps in recent times: one camp wants to declare scientific achievements as the work of lone geniuses while the other camp (definitely the more vocal one in recent times) wants to try to almost completely abolish the idea of genius and instead ascribe scientific feats to cultural and historical factors, partly because of considerations of diversity which are legitimate but which when emphasized singularly beyond everything else tend to do injustice to other factors. As often happens, the truth is more mundane and somewhere in between: Einstein or Feynman were extraordinary intellects who did things that few others could have done, but it's also equally accurate that they could not have done those things without the relevant historical and social factors being lined up in their favor. We don't have to pick between genius-enabled science and socially-enabled science. The reality is that both of them piggyback on each other. There is little doubt that flashes of insight occasionally come from geniuses, just as it's true that these flashes stand on a foundation of historical and social drivers.

Fortunately as Shapin indicates, the art of denigration itself has not seen untrammeled success, and some successful biographies of Einstein, for instance, have satisfyingly walked the tightrope between hagiography and candid human assessment. Gimbel's biography itself is along similar lines, pointing out both Einstein’s greatness and failures as a human being. Taken together these works provide some hope that we can appreciate the shining products of humanity while also appreciating their human defects. Like the paradoxical but complementary waves and particles of quantum theory, the two complement and complete each other. As Shapin says,

"Denigration is now itself showing signs of wear and tear. Much present-day scientific biography aspires to something as apparently benign as a “rounded” account of life and scientific work—neither panegyric nor exposé, neither a dauntingly technical document nor a personal life with the science omitted. Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography is an accessible and assured account, and his goal is such a “whole life” treatment. “Knowing about the man,” Mr. Isaacson writes, “helps us to understand the wellsprings of his science, and vice versa. Character and imagination and creative genius were all related, as if part of some unified field.” What could be more sensible?"

Similar thoughts went through my mind as I contemplated the well-intentioned movement for including diversity in scientific research and science communication, best exemplified by the March for Science in which I enthusiastically participated a few months ago. Advocates of this movement make the case that a person of color is more likely to be motivated to study science if he or she can look up to a role model of color or similar in science. This fact is absolutely true, and people like Meitner, Chandrasekhar and Wu (see linked biographies) need to be more widely known. But I also get the feeling that in pushing this viewpoint we are discounting the massive influence that the Dead White Scientist has inevitably had on aspiring non-white scientists. And this fact has absolutely nothing to do with their being white or green or multicolored, and it has nothing to do with any kind of “soft colonial Stockholm syndrome”: it has everything to do with the power of their ideas, their scientific accomplishments and their prowess as teachers. For better or worse, the modern scientific revolution was largely engineered by European men, and the color of their skin pales in comparison to the fundamental importance and sheer excitement of the deep scientific truths which they unearthed. Striving to bring about an equal and vibrant scientific community is an important and laudable goal, but downplaying the purity and impact of scientific ideas uncovered by a few select members of our species simply because they happened to be a particular color or gender does nothing to advance the cause of science.

A personal anecdote may help in this context. I grew up in India and have vivid memories of being surrounded by friends who read "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" and "The Feynman Lectures on Physics". Feynman's memoirs especially sold like hot cakes on the streets of my hometown, and pirated copies abounded. The famous Lectures were endlessly debated in college cafeterias, professors' offices and late night sessions in dorms and homes. The ubiquity of these books on the streets and bookshelves of India is a vivid memory, and I won't be surprised if the volume sold more copies in that country than it did in the US. Incidentally, many of us also read James Gleick's "Genius" in which Gleick documents Feynman's occasional questionable behavior toward women. Thus, all of us were well aware of both sides of Feynman's life, but it did not stop us from being inspired first and foremost by his science. That Feynman was white or that we occasionally frowned upon his behavior did not matter as much as the fact that all of us were enraptured by his passion for scientific ideas and his enthusiasm in clearly communicating them. Many of us were propelled into scientific careers partly because of his writings, and we were all the better for it. So, the fact remains that Richard Feynman inspired millions of non-white people around the world, many of who then went into science and now occupy scientific positions in academia, industry, teaching and science communication around the world. Is this not something that needs to be celebrated? Is this not an excellent example of improving diversity in science?

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is an ironic bias in the accounts of those who want to discount Dead White Men as role models because they were Dead White Men: these well-meaning folks sometimes seem to fall prey to their own white privilege in being blind to the other side of the story, one in which people like Feynman and Einstein and Bethe and Crick inspired many minorities and women to pursue scientific research. What is particularly ironic is that in their drive to be inclusive, they are actually excluding the viewpoints of people like me who grew up in developing countries with many Dead White Men as role models and did not mind it. Another example: it was a wonderful children's book of biographies of mostly dead white men named "Giants of Science" that sparked the first seeds of scientific curiosity in me as a child. Sure, it would have been nice to have an Indian or Vietnamese or Chinese scientist or a woman as a role model in there, but this omission did not keep me from being encouraged by the men of science who were in there.

The fact that Feynman or Einstein were white or that we should frown upon some of their social interactions pales in comparison with the ennobling effect they had on an entire generation of non-white men and women in pursuing careers in science. I believe this should count for a lot. This is not hero worship and this is not worship of men of particular color or nationalities; if anything it is the neutral worship of the scientific advancement of millions as well as the ideas themselves. When we enthusiastically endorse Feynman or Darwin or Pauling, what we are really endorsing are elevating ideas like quantum electrodynamics or evolution by natural selection or the nature of the chemical bond. But we are also endorsing the positive impact that these people have had on millions of other human beings of all kinds. Be as sensitive as you can to the cause of diversity in science, but let that cause not blind you to your goal of promoting and appreciating science as an instrument for the intellectual dignity and practical betterment of humankind, no matter where it comes from.