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Physics Famous scientists today...what set them apart?

  1. Oct 28, 2016 #1
    I'm an astrophysics major in college and I absolutely plan to continue on to graduate school if it gives me the best opportunities.

    I've grown up watching popular scientists (or science "communicators" if you will) and reading their books. Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins. We can throw in Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, etc.

    They all were normal scientists at first...doing their work and completely unknown. But somehow they all became famous and popular through social media, TV, etc to the point where many people...even those who don't follow science...know who they are. I'm not talking about scientists who made groundbreaking discoveries here (like Newton, Einstein, etc.) These guys are simply famous for communicating science to the public.

    So my question is: What commonality did all these guys have that set them apart? What specifically was the reason for their rise to popularity?

    I'm asking this because part of my personality is to do things that people notice. I know it sounds arrogant and selfish (think what you want), but I enjoy receiving attention for succeeding at things. So I hope to follow the paths of these guys and earn attention for succeeding.
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  3. Oct 28, 2016 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    What set them apart is that they got noticed. It's a lottery ... and like a lottery you can improve your odds of getting noticed by actions that get you attention.
    ie. Lawrence Krauss got noticed for his scientific work - but got attention for saying things that are quoteable. He also got an agent and a publisher who promote him. So the bottom line is that the thing that makes him stand out is good PR from an initial impetus.

    ie. Feynman happened to be studying the right stuff when US joined the War and wanted a superweapon and his group ended up in the manhatten project ... but he wasn't very well known until after the shared Nobel Prize (compare: who was the co-winner?) ... but he still worked at the public speaking thing and was able to focus on science communication.

    Part of the PR, the reason it worked so well, though was that each brings their own character and personality to the fore - in this sense it is what makes them different that sets them apart rather than the commonality they share.
  4. Oct 28, 2016 #3


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    Also, don't confuse being famous as a science communicator with being famous in your particular field of research.
    What sets the people you mentioned apart is that they are very good at things like public speaking and have personas that work very well in front of a camera or a microphone. These are things you can practice, but it is not something you learn by making ground-breaking discoveries in the lab. Hence, if your goal is -for some reason- to become a "celebrity" you might have to take a different career path than a "normal" scientist. It might be a good idea to e.g. do amateur theater.

    The two most famous now-living physicists in the UK are probably Hawking and Brian Cox. Cox in particular is a very good communicator and looks comfortable on a stage (being a former pop star has probably helped a great deal) or presenting a show on radio or TV. I am sure he is a good particle physicist, but I doubt anyone would have heard of him outside his field unless he had those skills.
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2016
  5. Oct 29, 2016 #4


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    "Celebrity": Someone who is well-known for their well-knownness.
  6. Oct 29, 2016 #5
    Right...they were "noticed" because of their strong communication skills.

    But were they just kind of trotting along with these skills and got lucky because people offered them communication opportunities?
    Or did they have to put in a lot of time and effort to going out of their way to promote themselves and draw attention to themselves?

    I guess what I'm looking to establish are proven ways to "be noticed" beyond the traditional work required for your career. As a future astronomer/astrophysicist, I look forward to doing real work towards my field. But I also admire science communicators who get to travel a lot and speak to people, get invited to speak on TV news channels, etc. and I want to be like them. Part of how I measure my success later in my life will be if I get to actually show people that I made it...people who dismissed me in my childhood and discouraged me or criticized me. If they never hear about me, it will only validate what they did. I want them to see me in a national spotlight.

    So I'm looking to jot down specific "methods" to be noticed and gain attention.

    So far I have some:
    -Be really, really, really good at what you do
    -Be a really good communicator/writer/speaker
    -Go against the grain: challenge and criticize traditional norms
    -Engage people you disagree with and call them out on social media
    -Make controversial statements and claims (this is more risky)

    Do you agree with those I have so far, and what can we add to the list? Thanks!
  7. Oct 29, 2016 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    If you want to be famous, get a publicist. That becomes their job. (And yes, several of the,more well-known scientists do have publicists)
  8. Oct 29, 2016 #7


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  9. Oct 29, 2016 #8


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    Living your life to impress people who somehow "dismissed" you earlier in life is great path to disappointment. There are a lot of people out there who aren't going to be impressed no matter what you do. But the fact of that matter is that in most cases their opinions don't count for much anyway. You have to life your life for yourself. Pursue your dreams because they are important to you. And the to the degree you can control it, associate with those who support you in your choices.

    Sure. You have to think about how you're going to get really, really, really good though. This alone can take a lifetime of work and dedication and exclusion of other opportunities.

    Right. And it's important to remember that most people don't start off really good at this. They start off being mediocre and then learn from feedback and improve through directed effort.

    Well, it's important to think critically about everything, but challenging things just for the sake of challenging them won't always be the most fruitful path to walk. Often it's a better path to seek to understand why things are the way they are - particularly at first. Sometimes you'll find something worth changing, or at least challenging. Sometimes you'll find that the traditional norms have been right all along.

    This is a bad idea. There are times and places for debate, but this sounds like a formula for spending a lot of time and energy spinning your wheels. There are too many people who will do the online equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "la la la!" If you want to be an educator, recognizing the opportunities where people are genuinely willing to listen to you and telling them apart from situations where people are venting their own opinions will be a critical skill. If you're really good, you'll be able to turn some of the latter into the former, but this won't happen easily.

    Being controversial for the sake of being controversial is also a bad idea, unless your only goal is to get attention. If you're controversial and wrong, no one will ever take you seriously.
  10. Oct 29, 2016 #9


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    My read of the OP is that that's exactly the goal.
  11. Oct 31, 2016 #10
    Incorrect. I want to be recognized for good, important work and contributions to the field of astronomy and science and space projects. I'm only talking about "getting attention" in this thread because I've always been an extremely independent person, and no one really knows me or pays attention. So I need work on getting myself out there. That's what this is about.

    I would never be controversial for the sake of being controversial, or challenge norms JUST to get attention, WITHOUT being able to back myself up. The point is to have a reason for what you're doing. I would challenge a norm if I truly believed that I had a better idea, and I might make a controversial statement if I had good reason to hold that viewpoint.

    For example, Bill Nye didn't debate Ken Ham just to draw attention to himself. He debated Ken Ham because believing in creationism is a traditional norm and evolution is a relatively new idea that many people don't accept, and Nye believes that creationism will hold the next generation back from being the best scientists, engineers, and explorers they can be. And Bill Nye doesn't call out and criticize climate change deniers just for the sake of drawing attention to himself. He does it because he truly knows that humans are contributing to climate change and if we don't change our actions, we will do harm to the planet and ourselves.

    Richard Dawkins doesn't attack religious people just for the sake of drawing attention; he does it because he truly believes that religion is a plague that damages society and he believes that science and logical thinking are necessary for a more prosperous planet.

    Everything you do has to be true to yourself and what you believe, obviously. My goal here is to learn how to bring attention to my work, because many people never make the efforts to be known or be an influence on others.
  12. Oct 31, 2016 #11
    Ambition, passion and self-confidence are the three qualities that all the "famous" scientists I have known possessed. Most, but not all, were/are gregarious. Most were also talented, but not all of them. It kind of depends on what "famous" means. Linus Pauling mentored me from 6th grade until he died. He's famous. Joshua Lederberg closely mentored me for a couple years in high school. He was one of the most gifted scientists of the 20th century, but not particularly famous. I assisted Charles Richter in the field for two years while I was in high school and a freshman in college. He's famous. Four of my physics profs had or soon won the Nobel Prize. Schawlow and Shockley are probably considered famous; Bloch and Hofstadter not so famous. I took modern theoretical physics from Susskind a few years ago. I suppose he's famous. Heisenberg is, of course, famous as is Feynman. Burton Richter less so. Edward Teller is famous. What they all had in common was a consuming passion for what they were doing, were ambitious in the undertaking and supremely self confident. There are a few others that I got to know fairly well, except for Heisenberg. I'm ubiquitous, but unknown, although for most of my adult life I get, "Are you supposed to be somebody famous?" I, of course, reply "Why, yes I am" "Hmmmm" is the usual response.
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