The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Heroes of Science

“If science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.” This was the key message from Dr. Roger Highfield, our Director of External Affairs, and this year’s recipient of the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal, at his Royal Society lecture ‘Heroes of Science’ earlier this week.

Modern science is now so often a global collaborative effort, with thousands of researchers joining forces on gigantic scientific undertakings such as the Large Hadron Collider, ENCODE and the Polymath Project. As research teams have become the norm in scientific discovery, many are asking is modern science is too big for heroes?

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Roger disagrees, arguing in his lecture (and in this Daily Telegraph article) that “it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants.” The likes of Isaac Newton or Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes before dying due to prolonged radiation exposure, provide inspirational stories of scientific discovery, and these stories continue to this day through figures such as Peter Higgs, Craig Venter and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

These scientists would never claim to have worked alone, but this is often how they are portrayed. In the crowded realm of ideas, heroes are often the most viral transmitters of the values of science. Our fascination with heroes could perhaps be explained by recent brain scan studies by Francesca Happé and colleagues in London, which show the existence of a hard-wired fondness for narratives in us all.

EEG hat

An EEG hat, used to measure brain activity

Roger ended his lecture with a final thought on the use of metaphors to convey complex ideas, noting that by the same token, heroic characters who appreciate scientific discovery are needed to express a vivid sense of the way science works.

The Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar lecture is given annually on a subject relating to the history, philosophy or social function of science. The accompanying Medal is named in memory of three Fellows of the Royal Society, John Desmond Bernal, Peter Medawar, and John Wilkins, the first Secretary of the Society. Previous recipients of the Medal include Melvyn Bragg, who lectured on the history of the Royal Society, and Professor David Edgerton, who discussed twentieth century science and history.

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