Before we start to think about this question, we have to recognise that very few scientists are ever really famous. I believe that Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are all names that are recognised by very many people (although there is no picture of Hawking on Pixabay, www.pixabay.com ). But can you think of very many others? Also fame changes with time. Turing wasn’t very famous while he was alive. And will Hawking be famous in the future – calculating the entropy (post 16.38) of black holes doesn’t capture our imagination like the theories of relativity or evolution, discovering radium or inventing the computer science that has completely transformed our lives.
We shouldn’t confuse fame with accomplishment. Most Nobel prize-winners in physics, chemistry and medicine never become really famous. Look at this list of Nobel prize-winners and ask yourself whether you are familiar with their names – Arthur Ashkin, Donna Strickland, Konstantin Novoselov, Richard Henderson, Michael Levitt, Thomas Steitz, Yu Youyou, John Gurdon, Barry Marshall. All have made very important contributions to science. Even if you’ve heard of most of them (and none of their pictures appears on Pixabay), I think you’ll agree that they’re not as famous as Jesus Christ, Genghis Khan, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi or the Dali Lama or even as famous as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley or John Lennon.
The reason I started thinking about fame is explained in the next paragraph.
Currently a microbiologist is famous (for a scientist) in France; his name is Didier Raoult. President Emmanuel Macron of France has visited him in Marseille to discuss the treatment of covid-19. Previously he has received several honours in France despite what has been described as a “history for publishing manipulated data” (https://forbetterscience.com/2020/03/26/chloroquine-genius-didier-raoult-to-save-the-world-from-covid-19/, see also the “Controversies” section of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Didier_Raoult and https://pubpeer.com/publications/B4044A446F35DF81789F6F20F8E0EE#42 ). He appears not to appreciate (see https://forbetterscience.com/2020/03/26/chloroquine-genius-didier-raoult-to-save-the-world-from-covid-19/0 ) the importance of double-blind controlled trials that are required to demonstrate the value of a new drug (post 16.46). So why is he currently famous? I believe there are two reasons. One: covid-19 is a serious problem for which he claims to have a solution and people want to hear some good news on this subject. Two: he has a genius for self-promotion: he makes excellent use of Twitter and Youtube and his ideas have been promoted by Fox News which is may be why they have been further promoted by President Donald Trump of the USA.
Now let’s look again at our really famous scientists: Einstein, Darwin, Curie, Turing and Hawking. There is no doubt that they did very reliable work that has made a great contribution to science and, in some cases to our everyday lives. Einstein’s theory of relativity has some bizarre conclusions that immediately surprise us; there are two twins, one goes on a very fast journey into space and, when he returns, is younger than the other twin. Darwin explained how human beings could arise naturally from other species – a revolutionary idea at the time. Curie discovered important radioactive elements (see posts 16.6 and 16.27), was the first person to use the word “radioactivity” and promoted its use to cure cancer. Turing discovered the idea of a programmable computer and showed how versatile it could be. Hawking did very complicated mathematical research related to the origins and structure of the universe.
Darwin didn’t promote himself but was vigorously promoted by his contemporary Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”). I believe that Einstein, Curie and Hawking promoted themselves inadvertently by eccentricity and political influence (Einstein), being a highly successful woman scientist (when few scientists were women) who was the first person to win two Nobel prizes (Curie), and by bravely overcoming serious illness and disability in an instantly recognizable way (Hawking). Turing appears to have been a shy person whose posthumous fame has its origins in his genius, his contribution to winning the Second World War (not generally known when he was alive but Winston Churchill said that he made the biggest single contribution to Allied victory) and the tragedy of his death following vicitimisation by the British legal system. Your ability to read this blog is thanks to Turing!
So, it seems to me that famous scientists need to do something that captures the public imagination and need something extra to create an image for themselves.