One of the things that has always interested me is the intersection of science and pop culture. I have a feeling this is a 20th century phenomena with some roots and early example in the Victorian era. But it was probably the confluence of cheap available technology (radios, electric light, cars, etc.), mass media and the ubiquity of science in everday life that made some scientists celebrities.
The best example of this of course is Albert Einstein. His hair and beard are instantly recognizable even to school age children who'd be hard pressed to explain his contributions to modern science. I went down to a little media event that the Perimeter Institute (a theoretical physics research institute in Waterloo) was holding at Nathan Philip's square for their upcoming EinsteinFest
and found myself face-to-face with ordinary people dressed up as the great man of physics himself. It seems that more than 40 years after his death, a Swiss physicist still has the personality to get a bunch of people up at 6:00am to take a bus to Toronto.
Of course Einstein made the popularity of people like Stephen Hawking
and Carl Sagan
possible. Not to mention biologists like Jacques Cousteau
, Dian Fossey
, and our very own David Suzuki
But what does it mean to be a scientific celebrity? I know that politics, personalities and petty rivalries exist in science but as a whole science isn't about image, unlike music, or film or most of celebrity in general. Being a celebrity in the sciences, it seems, still requires substance. Does the celebrity ever overshadow the science and the research someone tries to do?