Wanted: The Brangelina of science

By Guest Author 02/09/2013

by Emma Timewell

Earlier this year I heard Professor Brian Cox (not to be confused with the actor Brian Cox) talk at the British Science Association Science Communicators Conference. Brian Cox has become a big name in British TV over the past five years, something he openly admits has only happened due to his incense that UK physics funding, including that for one of his projects, was cut.

Science communication superstar: Professor Brain Cox
Science communication superstar: Professor Brian Cox

Luckily for everyone – especially for the BBC, who now use him as a front man for a number of shows – he has discovered he quite enjoys it.

The question I posed to Professor Cox was about his comfort being an international science sex symbol, one of the only ones we have currently. From his response it was obvious he hadn’t thought about it much, but after some pondering he admitted that international superstars are what science needs and if it falls to him, so be it. His point was that science is competing with everything else in popular culture – music, movies and various “celebrities” – and that to truly have a voice, science needs to cover the same amount of cultural ground.

In his words, we need our own Brad and Angelina.

If we think back 100 years, scientists were the rock stars of the day. Albert Einstein, who died in 1955, still has one of the most recognisable faces on the planet – although this is perhaps waning with the rise of the Kardashian family. Everyone knows the equation e=mc² even if they don’t know what the e, m or c represent. Marie Curie is a name well recognised – somewhat abnormally even more than that of her partner, in life and science, Pierre.

Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos is still causing some consternation in the USA and Ancient Greek scientist Archimedes’ “eureka” is still echoed. For hundreds of years, people who made discoveries have been lauded by the world.

In the 21st Century, where technology is taken for granted and everyone is looking for the next gadget to make their life easier, there is only a very small percentage of the population who would be able to name even one Nobel Prize winner of the past decade (I am not one of these people, to be honest). But yet the world is on tenterhooks to hear the name of a celebrity’s baby, or which pop stars are dating.

Brian Cox hasn’t quite reached global fame as yet, and probably has a while to go before he reaches that of his closest competitor, David Attenborough (who’s now 87). So I put a call out to scientists across the world – who will step up and be our Posh and Becks?

Emma Timewell is senior communications advisor at Plant & Food Research and an executive member of the Science Communicator’s Association and the Association for Women in Science. The views expressed in this blog are personal and should in no way be construed as those of any of the organisations Emma represents.

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