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Rethinking our physics heroes

As we reassess the contributions of the ‘great people’ of science, we should also celebrate the impact of mentors.

t seems to be a human instinct to create
hero figures and attach the status of
celebrity to those who we feel have
accomplished great things. In this respect,
physics is no different from the rest of
society, as scientists have a tendency to put
those who make the biggest breakthroughs
on a pedestal.
However, this canonization of those who
do great work raises important questions
about how we should assign value and
credit, and what we should expect of
ourselves and others when parsing the
more negative behaviour of some of physics’
biggest heroes.
There are many high-profile examples
of people who created great science but
also had problematic aspects to their
personalities. For example, recent revelations
contained in Albert Einstein’s travel diaries
Credit: Nature and Science/Alamy Stock Photo (left), Age fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo (right)
show that he seems to have been guilty of
stereotyping his Chinese hosts in rather
crude terms. Earlier this year, what would
have been the 100th birthday of Richard aspects of their character. Removing the play in nurturing the next generation of
Feynman (pictured, right) was marked by a personality of a scientist from consideration scientific talent.
flurry of celebratory articles and events — also minimizes the fact that there are No person is entirely good or entirely
but it was also a reminder of the undoubted individuals that deserve to be celebrated for bad. Therefore, it would be admirable if
sexism he displayed on numerous occasions. the positive impact that they have had on scientists were able to take a leading role
Against the backdrop of the #MeToo the community. in showing the rest of society that it is
campaign that took off in late 2017, other There are some high-profile examples of possible to balance the positive with the
more recent (and often egregious) examples this. By all accounts, Mildred Dresselhaus negative, and find a way to reach an honest
of misconduct in scientific laboratories and (pictured, left) was a wonderful mentor, assessment of the complexity of human
institutions have rightfully been highlighted. continually advocating for other women personality, while also drawing a line at
Historically, one response to this has been in science, and apparently always having what is unacceptable.
to advocate a focus on the grand discoveries time to speak with junior researchers and Perhaps the way we look up to the
that great scientists achieved, and to leave offer advice. Similarly, Sam Edwards was great people of science needs tweaking. In
personality out of the equation. Good science, described by his colleagues as someone addition to the necessary and important
the argument goes, stands on its own and who showed humility when dealing with attempts to bring negative behaviour by
in some sense is morally neutral in itself. those more junior than him and grit those in powerful positions to light, and to
However, this has serious problems associated when pushing against administrative or make sure that universities enforce their
with it. Most importantly, the victims of established interests. codes of conduct with integrity, we should
harassment and discrimination are naturally On a more personal level, many also actively look to highlight and celebrate
silenced in this approach: if the actions of physicists can point to a mentor or advisor those in science who are constructive and
the harasser don’t matter then the stories and who, at some point during their early career, generous with their time and energy. They
experiences of the victim don’t either. took them under their wing and helped might not be heroes by the commonly
Simply writing off negative attitudes of them become the researcher they are today. accepted meaning of the term, but they
our historical heroes as being ‘of their time’ It’s often true that such mentors are not arguably have more impact on those
also seems misguided. Many would claim even our official supervisors or those who near them than the traditional icons of
that, despite (and perhaps because of) its guide us in the details of our science. Coffee- science. We could also tweak our personal
dubious past, modern science could set an room conversations are hugely valuable, aspirations: maybe our aim should be to act
example for dealing with these issues in an covering the politics of the department, tips more like heroic role models rather than
open and honest way. for writing successful grant applications, heroic researchers. ❐
But there is another unintended suggestions of who to ask about a particular
consequence that, while less serious, is also problem, or how to balance professional and
detrimental. There are also a lot of physicists personal responsibilities. These mentors Published online: 2 August 2018
who have kind, caring and constructive should be celebrated for the vital role they

NATURE PHYSICS | VOL 14 | AUGUST 2018 | 769 | 769