We have all seen the old movies where the scientist is called into the room full of expectant faces. His/her task is to either save the world from plague, monsters, aliens, plague carrying alien monsters… you get the point. With a studiously smug look the scientist proclaims the solution needed to save the world as we know it. Problem solved cue heroic anthem and cut to end credits. If said scientist has a slightly Oxford English, or Ivy League accent, why then the world is still saved, but in a much superior, classy sounding way. Where does this image come from, and why does it persist to this day? Is the image it projects obsolete? Do people expect their scientists to have a certain air about them? Possibly. I blame Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and that smug S.O.B Sherlock Holmes for the creation of the stereotype. For many people of the early 20th Century, the image of Sherlock was their first experience with a scientist. Though he was billed as a “consulting detective” he used observational skills, techniques from the freshly dawning discipline of forensic science, and his own drug induced fevered genius to solve the case. He was a scientist in many ways, and as such that popular image seems to have spilled over into the world of living scientists.
The dawn of the 20th century saw amazing advances in our understanding of the universe. We went from horse drawn buggies to space ships in just under 70 years. Think about that for a moment. Put yourself in the place of a person born in the 1890’s. You would have been born into a world in the grips of an industrial revolution. Giant steam driven machines in the foundries, and other factories. Children working 18 hour days, in dangerous conditions, often being consumed by those same machines. A widespread depression that lasted most of that decade. People still dying of simple infections, and epidemics of flu, cholera, diphtheria. A diagnosis of diabetes was a death sentence, and the list goes on. And just about the time you survived that and it looked like you might make it, right in the flower of your youth, Bam! World War 1. Were you one of the blessed that survived the trenches and the horror of that war, more or less intact? Maybe now in your early 20’s you are thinking it is time to settle in and start getting a normal life going? Bam! The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 followed you home from Europe, and spread throughout the world like a fire through dry brush. Could it get worse? Yes, always yes. Was there anything positive happening during all of this suffering and misery? Yes, oh my, a resounding yes. This was the dawn of what many now still consider the Golden Age of scientific discovery.
Some of the breakthroughs and discoveries that would write the script for the future of our species occurred during this bleak period. In 1901 Karl Landsteiner would discover human blood groups, the famous A,B,O and AB. His research and findings would make the science of transfusion medicine possible. A failed student and unknown clerk in a Swiss patent office named Albert Einstein would set the world on its ear in 1905 with two theories that would have repercussions that we are still having issues with. In 1921 a Canadian physician just back from World War 1, Frederick Banting, and his research assistant Charles Best isolate Insulin, and give millions a fighting chance at survival against diabetes. In 1928, a bacteriology professor at St. Mary’s Hospital in London will make a discovery that will save the lives of literally hundreds of millions, Penicillin. Later in the century such luminaries as Jonas Salk who defeated polio. Rosalind Franklin, who set the groundwork for Crick and Watson to discover the double helix nature of our own human DNA would come along. Men and women who made a difference, and changed our world. How sad is it that no one outside of a few research facilities have ever heard of Joey Barnett, whose research opened the door for further study into organ and limb regeneration. How about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered and explained what a pulsar is. Take a look around the room you are sitting in, chances are there are at least half a dozen things you take for granted that Nicola Tesla invented before your grandparents were born.
Sadly, it seems that as our species entered the information age, it degenerated into a populace of i-Zombies, and lethargic obese on-line gamers, and our heroes degenerated right along with us. The heroes of today are those fleeting personalities that the miniscule attention spans of the tragically hip can retain for the length of time their mayfly attention spans can endure. Today’s hero, is tomorrow’s scoundrel. Turned on and devoured by the very forces that made them. And to what end? A distraction, a news cycle filler. We have entered into an era of information overload, and find ourselves surrounded by words that can mean anything, that are dressed up for the kill. The shallower the celebrity the better, so it doesn’t take any effort to follow their antics, and tweets. How would Einstein be portrayed today? Hero? Probably not, in fact he would probably be at the bottom of a dog-pile of sex scandal accusations, or some other cause DuJour, in which the only difference between the accused, and those being entertained by the allegations is the status of having been caught.