Crazy Al

So I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day about science and scientists, and in particular what on earth we theoretical physicists actually do.

She (mostly jokingly I think) said we’re really all a bit weird, just sitting around thinking about quantum physics all day. einstein_imagesI tried to begin to explain that we don’t sit around thinking about quantum mechanics all day any more than a tailor sits around all day thinking about needles. (Or how many angels or demons can fly through the eyes of said needles at the same time.) No, we’re mostly getting on with using the needles in the making of new suits and so forth. (To continue the allegory.)

But I did not get to that analogy, because another thing came up. She went on to say “…like Einstein, with crazy hair…”, to invoke her primary example of the crazy quantum scientist. Now, given that she was talking to me (er… no crazy hair, in case you are wondering), she was clearly joking, but in my view, at the core of all that is a serious image problem that science has to deal with – bizarre clichรฉs about who we are and what we look like. So I thought I’d point something out.

The most famous image of the crazy/eccentric scientist is largely based on a lie (or more generously, a misconception), in the following sense. I typed “Einstein” into Google, clicked on images and the very first page (click for larger view) was of 20 famous images of the man, either as crazy-haired eccentric, or wizened old Yoda-like icon, or whatever. Except the very last one on the page. There he is as a normal-looking young man, an image that is so much less common. But here’s the thing. When he was doing the majority of the work he was famous for (quantum mechanics, Special Relativity, etc), that is closer to what he looked like. He was born in 1879 and his “miracle year” (when four stunning papers he is famous for were published) was 1905. So he was 26, and he’d been doing the work for years leading up to that. He was not some crazy old guy sitting around thinking about quantum physics, the image that gets put out there in the Einstein (and to some extent, scientist) mythology. I explained all this and showed the Google page (snap above).

She looked at it for a moment. Sharp intake of breath on realization.

Then, “Oh! He was a crazy young guy!”…



(*I then laughed slightly hysterically for about a full minute…)

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