Monday, December 22, 2003

Scientific Superstars

On Saturday I visited the Einstein Exhibit at Chicago's Field Museum. Some manuscripts and letters and a nice exhibit explaining why time must vary if the speed of light remains a constant made this an interesting but not a must-see exhibit. The biggest surprise for me came from seeing how Einstein's fame happened overnight instead of the more gradual fame I would have expected. In 1919 a solar eclipse showed that light from stars do bend from gravitational forces. Einstein's fame grew immediately and his name became synonymous with genius.

This superstardom for a scientist doesn't seem to happen today. When Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's last theorem he did get some deserved attention but he never became a true household name. When you realize Wiles has hit the upper limit of fame a mathematician can receive (ruling out people like Ted Kaczynski and John Nash) one can see the Einstein effect of science may never return.

On the other hand, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno headlines the social page of the Chicago Tribune at the "Party With Giants." Perhaps scientists can still achieve more than fifteen minutes of fame after all.

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