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In the spirit of Mr Wizard: tracing the evolution of celebrity science through time and technology

Arguably, the idea of the intellectual celebrity may be as old as written history – witness Aristotle’s regard within the empire of Alexander the Great. However, the ubiquity of today’s interactive media has made celebrities out of a growing number of scientists and media presenters, as documented by sources such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The dictionary defines a celebrity quite simply as “a famous person”. Celebrity scientists, therefore, are persons who become famous because of their science, whether through self-promotion or recognition by certain publics. Media science celebrities may have science qualifications but enter into the public sphere through their media presence. Our session will consider the evolution of such celebrities over time as technology has changed, focusing on both celebrity scientists and media science celebrities. Many current media science celebrities (including Bill Nye) have mentioned Mr. Wizard (Donald Herbert, whose U.S. television program, broadcast from 1951-1965,  combined science experiments with encouraging children to pursue their education)   as contributing to their decision to pursue science education and media work.

Our papers will discuss case studies of four celebrity scientists/media science celebrities from different countries and time periods, using the lens of Habermas’ theories about the public sphere and communicative action; entertainment education methodologies and rubrics; and mass communication theories. Participants will use these tools to explore the effect of these celebrities’ backgrounds and disciplinary orientations on their research foci and the content of their outreach presentations. Additionally, we will examine how intellectual climate and normative constraints and communication technologies/media of these science celebrities’ times impacted their interactions with different public spheres. Finally, our discussion will compare and contrast the science celebrities chosen in an attempt to draw some lessons about the societal role of science celebrities in engaging the public in science issues.


Author: Judith McIntosh White
University of New Mexico, United States

The Role of Celebrity in Public Engagement with Science and Technology: A Theoretical Framework Public engagement with science and technology has evolved through centuries by means of the construction of various private and public spheres of discourse and interaction. Celebrity scientists have emerged from and contributed to the growth of such spheres, interacting with all classes of society from kings to coal miners. During those same centuries and along with changing mass communication technologies, media science celebrities have emerged to create – and as creations of – virtual public spheres, often using entertainment education methodologies to interact with wide sectors of society and influence their members. This paper seeks to extend and enlarge the theoretical framework available for analysis of this evolution driven by time and technology, to wit, to employ entertainment education methodology to meld Habermas’ work on the public sphere and its resulting communicative action potentials with traditional and emerging theories about mass communication. The author will share this emergent theoretical framework to enrich the case studies offered in papers 2 through 4 of this session, resulting in a lively discussion of the changing societal roles of science celebrities in engaging the public in science issues. A Case Study in 19th Century “Celebrity Science”: Humphry Davy and the Coal Miners of the World

Speaker: Jeffrey White
TextPerts, United States

With the evolution of societal institutions from the Middle Ages through the age of mercantilism, dialectical historical materialism arose in part to explain the dialectic between society’s problems and their solutions. The same period that saw the rise of the bourgeois public sphere described by Habermas also witnessed the rise of the celebrity scientist, whose existence promised to contribute to resolution of this dialectic, turning problems into prosperity for the new class. Humphry Davy typifies the emergent “celebrity” scientists, presenting his papers to the intelligentsia of the Royal Institution at the same time he gave away his solution of the problem of fire damp (methane) in Britain’s coal mines. Employing the theoretical framework developed in Paper #1, this paper provides a case study of Davy’s work on the miners’ lamp during the second decade of the 19th century. The author will highlight the effects of Davy’s written papers and his lectures on the private and public spheres of the time, as Davy engaged not only his fellow scientists, but disparate strata of society including the royals, aristocrats, clergy, university professors, physicians, lawyers, industrialists, and coal miners themselves. Bill Nye the Science Guy: Why, Oh Why?

Speaker: David Weiss
University of New Mexico, United States

In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), historian Daniel Boorstin offers a scathing critique of the notion of celebrity, the individuals we call “celebrities,” and their hold on the general public. Central to Boorstin’s analysis is its distinction between heroes and mere celebrities: While a hero is admired for his or her courage, nobility, or exploits, a celebrity is a “person who is known for his [or her] well-knownness.” Further, the celebrity is in large part a construction of the media and the audience; as Boorstin observes, “we can make a celebrity, but we can never make a hero.” Perhaps no one in the science world embodies—while simultaneously challenging—Boorstin’s notion of the celebrity better than Bill Nye. Originally a Boeing mechanical engineer and stand-up comic, Nye has for the last three decades popularized a variety of STEM fields—and himself—thanks to his telegenic personality and its embrace by fans and the entertainment industry. At the same time, Nye’s celebrity status has given him a platform to work as a climate-change awareness advocate, author, and scientific advisor. Inspired by Boorstin, in my paper I explore the career(s) and creation of the person/media construct, or hero/celebrity, that is “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” New Media Science Communication in Latin America: Aldo Bartra, The YouTube Science Content Creator and his channel “Plato’s Robot”

Speaker: Denisse Vasquez-Guevara
University of Cuenca, Ecuador

Social Media is revolutionizing how science communication can engage vast audiences of non-experts with scientific content in the XXI century. In Latin America, there are still multiple barriers that still represent multiple challenges for science communication. Some of the main constraints affect the access and availability of scientific content for broad audiences. These constraints are the few available spaces for science in mass media, and the institutional barriers for developing science communication, such as (a) the scarce of funding/grants for science communication initiatives and research, (b) the lack of training for researchers and communication practitioners about science communication. Nonetheless, social media has opened new opportunities to communicate research to science-enthusiasts of all ages. This paper will address the case of Aldo Bartra, a Peruvian communication practitioner, who is the creator of the YouTube communication channel “El Robot de Platón,” Plato´s Robot. Only with five years, his on-line community reached 1.6 million subscribers from different countries. The content of his channel provides a variety of scientific content that varies from astrophysics, space exploration, health studies, and the demystification of fake online-information. His content is built by contrasting the findings of several scientific studies. This paper will analyze the case study of Bartra’s work through the theoretical framework proposed in Paper #1 and will argue about how his contribution to science communication in Latin America has contributed to overcome some of the persistent issues of science communication for the public engagement.

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