The Fable of Feynman and The Saga of Sagan: What Myths Of Scientists Do To Science

A few days ago I was speaking at the ‘Return of Biography’ workshop at the Science Museum (which, it turns out, does research as well as funky bubble-tube based exhibits to entertain kids. And me).  My talk was entitled ‘Life Cycle of a Star: Media Myths of Feynman and Sagan’ which was also, conveniently, the subject of my masters dissertation.  The workshop took place at temperatures around the melting point of human, but people seemed vaguely interested in the topic and I was encouraged to share it more widely.  So that is happening right here, right now.  What follows will be a somewhat whistlestop tour (I’m trying to get through a year of research and 15,000 words of writing here so fasten seatbelts tightly), but if you’d like a copy of the ongoing papers go here or contact me for the original.  You’ll also probably take the ideas onboard more fully if you set yourself up with an intravenous drip of espresso beforehand, as that’s the state it was written in.  

(To streamline it a bit I’ve put extra detail and amusing but tangential anecdotes in footnotes.  They’re fun, but you can read the main body of text without looking at them don’t worry).  

Basically the piece extends on a project for history of science by the excellent Jim Secord, outlined in his paper ‘Knowledge in Transit’.1  Secord argues that historians of science have done a good job of showing how science is shaped by particular contexts of local settings etc. etc. etc.1 But now we need to be a bit bolder, and think about what happens when all those different settings communicate with each other.  Now, the idea that scientific knowledge emerges when people have conversations, or send each other papers and objects and emails, doesn’t seem that radical.  But to fully engage with it is quite scary.  Not only do we have to think about all those particular settings, we also have to think about the particular relationships between them: how they’re communicating with each other, why they’re in conversation, what the various inbalances of power in the conversation are and so on.  Golly.  Fire up the cafetiere and pass the whisky, it’s going to be a long haul…

But Secord argues that we can’t soft-pedal all those issues.  As you’ve probably guessed, I agree with him.  However, I had a trick up my sleeve.  Instead of science, I started with celebrity culture.  But wait, for there was method in my madness.  Just as scientific knowledge allows us to know about phenomena we’ve never experienced, the mass media allows us to ‘know’ someone who we’ll never meet.  And, much as scientific knowledge of a thing can affect our responses to that thing (knowing about bacteria ruins the deliciousness of undercooked chicken, for example), a person’s reputation can affect how we respond to their behaviour.  Most importantly, both science and celebrity culture involve massive simplifications.

Let’s think about that last one a bit more.  The natural world is really complicated and unpredictable and just plain disorderly.  So, as noted in sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), scientists do lots of things to make their jobs easier (read: possible).  One thing is to hand around scientific knowledge in simplified units – graphs, equations, and the like.  In the same vein, a human life is really complicated, full of lots of contradictions and inconsistencies.  But we generally acquire our knowledge of distant people through short biographical snippets in the mass media, anecdotes in conversation, and other vastly simplified descriptions.  These serve a similar purpose to those graphs and equations – they provide units of knowledge to share around.  So I gave these accounts a name.  I called them ‘myths’.2

Now, there’s a  second twist.  By studying people who were celebrities because of science – sci-lebs – I could talk simultaneously about myths and science.  The sci-lebs I chose were the genius quantum physicist and larger-than-life personality Richard P. Feynman and the popularizer and “glamour-boy of astronomy” Carl Sagan.  I’m not going to describe their lives in full, but suffice it to say they both cultivated pretty widely-known reputations which I’ve represented in these funky wordclouds: Image

But the point of the paper was less about their general reputations, and more about exactly how they were handed round as myths.  To this end I had 4 Big Sections, and Feynman and Sagan helpfully supplied my data.

Section 1 – I had a look at how their professional colleagues spread stories about them.  A particularly good example was the ‘Feynman-Stories’ which physicists would tell each other about his crazy adventures (a selection are collected in his memoirs).  These stories painted a very particular picture of Feynman as an idiosyncratic uber-individualist.  They were also easy to remember and pass on, which meant lots of people came to know of Feynman largely through these stories.  More interestingly, everything Feynman did was related back to these stories – even how he ‘did science’ was compared to his behaviour in the stories (which rather annoyed him).  Conclusion: because they’re so simple, myths are really good at spreading very widely.  And, once they’ve started spreading, they tend to keep unifying disparate aspects of a person’s life into one simplified package.

Section 2 – I looked at how myths spread through different media.  Different media have different effects and motives r.e. spreading of myths.  For instance, newspapers are much better at spreading myths than the gossip of scientists.  And newspapers are often interested in different things to scientists.  For instance, in his early career Sagan’s NASA colleagues would mainly talk about him as a multidisciplinary expert (he’d done a weird astronomy-biology-chemistry doctorate).  But when journalists got interested in NASA they were more interested in his wit and quotability than his particular research, so they emphasized his glamour-boy-quality and kind of ignored the rest.3 But of course, those press myths made their way back into the world of scientists, of which more very soon…  Conclusion: You can’t just discuss general ideas of ‘reputation’, you need to talk about exactly how reputation spreads.

Section 3: Now it gets more science studies: how do these myths affect the spread and reception of scientific knowledge?  By the 1980s Sagan was most well-known for his grandiose and astonishingly trippy TV show Cosmos.  By now myths about him (mostly in reviews of said show) emphasized his apparent egotism and his dubious habit of presenting his beliefs as scientific orthodoxy.  In 1985, when the vicious ‘Nuclear Winter’ debate went public, Sagan’s opponents attacked Sagan’s arguments in a manner which very closely mimicked Cosmos reviews.  In other words, they used Sagan myths to discredit Sagan’s science.4  And, of course, these attacks fed back into the perception that he was an over-speculative (many even said second-rate) scientist.  This links back to the previous section.  For instance, Feynman’s physics chum Freeman Dyson learned about Feynman’s brand new (and largely unpopular) Feynman Diagrams through chatting to Feynman (and a lot of effort on his part).5  These chats also made Dyson a massive covert to Feynman’s myths.  Which raises the question: Would Dyson have bothered with all that effort if the diagrams had come from a less charismatic individual, or if they had long-distance correspondence rather than direct conversations with said charismatic individual?  Hard to answer conclusively, but worth asking.  Conclusion: myths and science can spread through the same communications, and interact as they do so.

Section 4:  Sagan once said “science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking”.  So I thought about that.  Sagan and Feynman both had very distinctive views of ‘science’, and there was a lot of social and political stuff going on in those views.  Here’s just a couple of examples.  Sagan’s ‘science is critical thinking’ downplayed the specialized skills used by scientists (a handy move for a popularizer), and up-played how this critical thinking could be applied to politics (a handy move for a liberal activist); while Feynman’s ‘science is specialized problem-solving’ (which he talked about in his teaching and public lectures) reflected the incredibly competitive and individual-driven field of Quantum Electrodynamics he worked in.  So, by spreading their science, they also spread all of their broader life philosophy.  Conclusion: talking about science can be used to unify and spread lots of disparate things all together JUST LIKE WHAT MYTHS DO.  (See section 1).

And that was (kind of) my overall conclusion.  Myths and science can be subjected to very similar analyses.  Secord’s Knowledge in Transit ideas – and general SSK ideas of scientific-knowledge-in-circulation – can be applied to other forms of knowledge (in the case of myths, a kind of ‘biographical knowledge’).  And when we do that, we see that knowledge doesn’t just circulate.  It also interacts.  Which makes studying communication even more complicated.  Sorry everyone.  But it’s important for one simple reason.  Science studies talks about how social, political etc. factors influence science.  But, quite often, for these factors to have any influence, they have to be known about.  We can’t just talk about politics as if it spreads telepathically.  So to do science studies we really really have to understand communication.  Fortunately, there’s things like graphs and myths which make it that little bit simpler to follow.

Right, that’s it.  As I say, skimming over a lot there so do feel free to read the papers or comment below for fleshing-out of particular bits.  But I’m too exhausted by that dash to conclude myself so I’ll leave it to Feynman.  Take it away, Richard: “You cannot develop a personality with physics alone, the rest of life must be worked in”

1 = If you can get access READ IT it’s probably the best piece of academia I’ve encountered ever.  If you can’t, well, get yourself access. Start a PhD or something. It’s worth it.  My favourite bit is a statement which makes me feel sorry for anyone who ever marked my undergraduate essays: “the process of situating knowledge ends up as a conclusion rather than a method: the same implicit epistemological lesson, that knowledge is ineluctably local and variable, is hammered home again and again.”  If you’re an historian of science, that really makes you sit up and take notice.

2 = This was intended as a nod to the work of the French generally-intellectual-type Roland Barthes.  But it caused a bit of confusion.  Although the word usually connotes something false or massively overexaggerated, I’m not in the business of investigating how true the various accounts about Feynman and Sagan were.  As an SSK-fanboy I follow the principle of symmetry (summarized somewhere in this) which basically says ‘whether or not something is true is less interesting than whether other people believe it’s true’.  It also resulted in my supervisor, the excellent Helen Curry (if you’re into history of modern genetics and/or agriculture look out for her, she’s on the verge of publishing some really exciting stuff) making comparisons with ancient Greek mythology, which gave me a brief but memorable mental image of Carl Sagan in a gladiatorial leather skirt.  That image, sadly, didn’t make it into the final piece.

3 = Another good example is reportage on the Challenger enquiry, when Feynman’s image as a free-spirited individualist was helpful to the mass media motive of turning a complex technical and moral investigation into a readable story of heroes (Feynman) and villains (NASA bureaucracy).

4 = Pretty successfully too, as described in Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik Conway’s must-be-read-by-everyone book Merchants of Doubt

5 = As David Kaiser’s excellent Drawing Theories Apart makes clear, he was really important in spreading Feynman’s diagram methods – until he came along they really didn’t have many supporters at all, largely because Feynman didn’t actually bother to make any rigid rules for using them (Dyson did instead). One of the things I learned while researching this paper was that Professor Dyson signs emails ‘Freeman D’, which I think betrays a secret second life as a rap star.

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