The hero myth and the rhetoric of science

with Brigitte Van Tiggelen

Brigitte is the only guest that has appeared on the podcast twice. You may remember her from episode #7, when we talked about Marie Curie on the occasion of her birthday. Conversations with Brigitte are very interesting and I think we could have an entire podcast series together! In this episode, we expand on the topic of "icons in science" that we already touched upon with Marie Curie. Marie, as well as Einstein, are probably the most... iconic scientists of the modern times. We look up to them, we don't dare dream to be like them, because they were geniuses, like super humans, everything came easy to them... but did it? Were they "geniuses?" Were they lonely geniuses? What does it mean?

"While heroic stories try to convey the human side of science, they actually miss the point." How? They pin down to one person discoveries and achievements that were made possible by teams of people over a period of time. Science is a process in which every person counts. The hero story gives the false impression that all is done by one person, and everyone else is "interchangeable", which is actually de-humanising.
"Science is foremost a human activity". We need narratives about science, but we need to be careful with their implications. Another interesting podcast episode with Brigitte, historian of science, and brilliant conversation partner.

Among other appointments, Brigitte is Director of the European Operations at the Science History Institute, Chair of the division of History of Chemistry inside the European Chemical Society, and associate at the Centre d'histoire des sciences et des techniques de l'Université catholique de Louvain à Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium.

2019 is UNESCO's International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT). Just like other UNESCO Years, we might see that celebrations are connected to a specific outstanding individual, for example: 2005 Year of Physics, Albert Einstein; in 2011, Marie Curie with her second Nobel prize. This year, the face of Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev appears in the logo of the celebrations, so the association between the celebrations and one individual, one personality, is not subtle at all: Mendeleev is the face of the IYPT (see logo in the right column).
What Brigitte finds interesting, is that this association suggests "the idea that there is a start with one man, one action, one place, everything happens all of a sudden like in a fairy tale. And this is where we can start thinking about heroes of science and what we miss about the history, the nature of science, and the nature of scientific community, when we just tell the story with our heroes."
Part of why Brigitte and I came together is precisely to discuss the topic of the "hero stories" in science, and the possible "dark side" of telling these stories, or rather to present them as the only narrative. Hero stories inspire us, they make the subject matter more human and relatable. But is that all?

Together with her colleague Annette Lykknes from NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, Brigitte has edited a book that talks about "women behind the periodic table." The book was published in August 2019 and the title is "Women in Their Element. Selected Women's Contributions to the Periodic System:"

Timed links to relevant topics

Timed links are available in the description of this episode on YouTube.

01:54: What is an icon in science? And how does it happen that some people transcend their simple human life and become... icons.

02:08: UNESCO's international years, and 2019: the International Year of the Period Table (IYPT). The logo of the IYPT features the face of Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev.

06:02: What do we mean by "dark side" of the heroic story?

13:37: Brigitte and her colleague Annette Lykknes from NTNU in Trondheim, Norway, are the editors of a book that was published in August 2019, called "Women in Their Element. Selected Women's Contributions to the Periodic System:"

17:46: Can you give an example of the contribution that some of these women "behind" the periodic table gave? An example of the behind-the-scenes work.

18:09: At Mendeleev's time, many women from Russia were coming to Europe to seek a university education. They were allowed to study because they were seen as the "foreigners," local women were still forbidden to study.

21:33: When we bring some of the unknown stories of women, for example, out of the shadows, to do them justice and give them the credit they deserve, we must be careful not to adopt a heroic language, i.e. not to replace the male heroic stories with female heroic stories, otherwise we "have not moved an inch," says Brigitte.

21:54: Science today is not performed by isolated individuals but large (and often geographically distributed) teams. The heroic narrative of the hero myth does not reflect that.

23:21: Lavoisier (1743-1794) is a good example of team work.

24:10: Lavoisier had the intuition that there is a way of doing chemistry with the logic of mathematics. This led to the famous law, "Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed."

25:13: Lavoisier was very good in engaging scholars, or savants, and convert them to his ideas. Brigitte makes an interesting use of the word "convert" that comes from the religious domain, and in fact she continues: "There is something quite religious about science, and being right".

26:32: The role of Madame Lavoisier in her husband's rise to fame.

28:11: Madame Lavoisier prepared a way for a "heroization" of ther husband, with her painstaking work of collecting, protecting, and promoting his materials.

29:26: Researchers need to communicate their ideas to a community, to peers, to the world. If you have a great idea in the middle of the forest, and nobody knows about it, the quality of that idea is irrelevant.

29:42: "Science is foremost a human activity. And this is why it is so sad in a way that these heroic stories, while they try to convey the human side of science, actually they miss the point."

30:00: Finding the Higgs boson cannot be pinned down to one person. The Nobel Prize has been given to a team of people, representing the much larger group of people that helped achive the goal. And there is the thinking head, and the others can be interchangeable. This is sad, and it is also not the case.

31:22: If we use the heroic language to tell the story of the "forgotten" people who worked in the shadow of the big name, the chief of the laboratory, thinking we give them justice, we actually don't move an inch. The danger is to do "retrospective conditional history", a history of "what ifs", if only that person had had a chance, maybe they would have gotten the Nobel Prize, she would have done, he would have deserved, and so on. But the real question is: how can we explain the process through which this person did not have the Nobel Prize, and what does that tell us about how we value and how we award recognition and credit. That is the question. But this would require that the entire community steps back and thinks about the system, about themselves, critically. And Brigitte doesn't think we are not there yet.

33:02: Is it possible that we are underestimating, if not overlooking altogether, the human factor in all aspects of how science is done? In the results, in how the results are interpreted, in how science communication is done?

34:48: Brigitte's personal example on publishing a comment piece on Nature: how the establishment can make a critical reflection about itself.

37:20: Can we move beyond the hero myth? What would happen if we stopped falling for the romantic narrative of the isolated Demiurge?

38:03: Brigitte wishes that scientists would receive a better training in history of science, and not think that "because they make it, they know it." According to her, scientists are not given "the right literature." By training they are not used to being critical of themselves, of their methods, and of institutionalized science.

39:17: Equip the scientists with some kind of ability to reflect on their own practice. Brigitte is struck by the fact that it's not that scientists don't want to do it, they are just not educated in that way, they are educated to jump to equation, formulas, and go to the lab or experiment, and look at the data, and so on, but they are not educated to sit back, think: "What is it that what I'm doing? How does that relate to my belief system, the way I function, the way I relate to the establishment, and so on?"

40:05: Not only scientists are not trained to reflect about their own practice, but when they show pro-action in gaining the necessary tools and knowledge themselves, their efforts are not valued and often seen as time subtracted to their research work.

43:15: If Lavoisier lived today, would he be on Twitter a lot? Brigitte said that he was a good communicator and knew how to get his message across. So in today's time, when young researchers are encouraged to be active on social media and take part in outreach activities, audience engagement campaigns, etc. does Brigitte think that Lavoisier would be a social media wizard?
And about tweeting about our research: is this the way, is this an effective way to communicate science? And when we talk about communicating science, is this type of communication what we are talking about?

43:58: "I am not sure that [Facebook and Twitter] are formats that allow for a real [science] communication."

44:33: One would think that in order to be known today you have to be on social media, but Brigitte says that the widespread use of social media on the behalf of researchers creates so much noise that it eventually creates just the opposite: invisibility."

44:46: If your strategy to be on social media is to tweet often, be present, consistent, that is to say something even when you don't have anything significant to say, how are you going to attract attention when you actually have something to say?

45:26: "Where were you when it hit you?" Brigitte says that a problem with stories is also that they put everything in one place, one moment, one time... while there is a total lack of recognizing "this as a process".

45:46: "I am not sure how very punctual things, like Twitter and so on, can actually serve the purpose [of communicating science.]"

47:08: Brigitte suspects that social media are focused on promoting yourself and not your ideas.

47:29: Brigitte is struck by the amount of aggressivity that sharing on social media brings about. She wouldn't say "controversies" because "controversies are centered on a content," while she perceives social media as being very "epidermical."

49:37: Would someone like Marie Curie be successful today, with the current evaluation systems of research, with this constant push to create an audience especially on social media? The same is true for Albert Einstein and Belgian George Lemaître.

51:16: George Lemaître is the father of the Big Bang theory. But he didn't call it Bing Bang theory: do you know where the name comes from?

54:02: On trusting researchers. If you bring the human factor in again, you let go of the obsession for numbers and quantitative evaluations of the researchers' performance, especially in the short term. Do we, or can we, trust researchers? How would a trust-based system look like in research?

55:30: We've been talking about heroes in science, people that have a positive reputation. But is there an anti-hero in science? Brigitte says yes, and his name is Fritz Haber.


This episode was re-published on EuroScientist in December 2019 (see episode on EuroScientist). On that occasion, I visited Brigitte at her house in Louvain-la-neuve, Belgium, and we talked about the International Year of the Period Table and her new co-edited book "Women in their element."

Selection of contents

00:47 Brigitte talks about the UNESCO International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT) that comes to a close with 2019, and explains that we are celebrating the first publication of the periodic system by Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev, 150 years ago.

1:49 Brigitte explains the difference between the periodic table and the periodic system.

2:46 What is periodic about the periodic table?

4:27 Mendeleev was not the only one working on the periodic system. Brigitte also mentions:
John Alexander Reina Newlands
William Odling
Alexandre-Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois
Gustav Detlef Hinrichs
Julius Lothar Meyer

8:32 Brigitte talks about the role of women in the building of the periodic system.

10:42 The history of how the periodic system came to be is like the periodic table itself: it has gaps! Brigitte and co-editor Annette Lykknes tried to fill the gaps with their volume "Women in their element."

14:35 Brigitte tells the story of how the word "isotope" was coined.

18:05 Matthew effect (Margaret Rossiter).

18:19 Matilda effect (Margaret Rossiter).

18:40 The case of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and how she got credit for her work.

21:33 What is the most recent biogaphy in Brigitte's edited book? "Some women are still alive" she says. Because the periodic table is a work in progress.

21:41 "As historians, we prefer to deal with dead people."

22:14 The periodic table is a work in progress, so the story of the people -men and women- that contribute to its expansion goes on.

List of people mentioned in the interview

Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleev

John Alexander Reina Newlands
William Odling
Alexandre-Emile Béguyer de Chancourtois
Gustav Detlef Hinrichs
Julius Lothar Meyer

Co-editor of Brigitte’s book “Women in their element"
Annette Lykknes, NTNU Trondheim, Norway

Marie Skłodowska-Curie
Pierre Curie
Discovered polonium and radium (Po and Ra)

Lise Meitner
Otto Hahn
Discovered protactinium (Pa)

Walter and Ida Noddack
Otto Berg
Discovered rhenium (Re)

Marguerite Perey
Discovered francium (Fr)

Yulia Vsevolodovna Lermontova
Received her PhD in 1874

Frederick Soddy
Margaret Georgina Todd
coined the term isotope in 1913

Matthew effect - Matilda effect
Margaret Rossiter

Marie Skłodowska-Curie
Pierre Curie
Nobel prize in physics for, 1903 shared with Henri Becquerel (half)

Harriet Brooks
Ernest Rutherford
Radium emanation (then Radon, Rn)

Page created: March 2019
Last update: September 2019