Seminars in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

'Prestige asymmetry in the popular image of physics'

Joseph D Martin (Durham University)


The pub-trivia test brings into focus a notable asymmetry in the popular image of physics: few would be shocked to see Stephen Hawking, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, or Peter Higgs crop up as an answer on pub quiz answer sheet. But a question calling for knowledge of John Bardeen, Mildred Dresselhaus, or Andre Geim would raise a few more eyebrows. Why? The answer has little to do with the relative importance of these individuals’ scientific contributions. Bardeen, after all, has the trivia-friendly distinction of being the only winner of two Nobel Prizes in physics (and Geim is the only individual to net an IgNobel prize on top of a Nobel). Rather it has to do with the fields in which they worked. Hawking, Bell Burnell, and Higgs are known for their contributions to high-energy physics and cosmology, endeavours that have tugged sharply at the popular imagination. Bardeen, Dresselhaus, and Geim are less known, but for no less remarkable contributions to solid state and condensed matter physics, fields which have remained steadfastly obscure to popular audiences. This talk explores the reasons for this popular prestige asymmetry. It establishes the notability of the asymmetry before reviewing existing accounts and advances three novel considerations, with particular attention to the visual culture of popular science.


Series Convenors: Alex Aylward, Erica Charters, Mark Harrison, Catherine Jackson, Sloan Mahone