Popularity

We seem obsessed by popularity. Celebrities, their actions and comments and dress and lifestyle fascinate many. Not all, and not me, but so many that it’s impossible to ignore them.

Click on your browser, whether it be MSN or Yahoo or whatever, and you’ll see lots of stories about celebrities and sensationalism. There’s a small amount of actual news, but it takes some winnowing to find it.

Film; books; music; television; sports. A few practitioners are popular, many can be classed as ‘celebrities’, and even scientists sometimes make the list of such. And yet, how few of these hugely important people or ideas are still important just a few years on? That brief tenure for ideas is the inspiration for this essay.

Celebrity ideas in physics, for example, deal with dark matter and God particles and such. If you’re more into physics-in-depth, it might be quantum mechanics or relativity. The one explains the behavior of the very small, the other explains the behavior of the very large. But neither explains both, and yet each is too important to be abandoned. Nothing else works nearly so well where each applies.

What this means, to me, is that we don’t have full understanding of either of them. Others see no problem with simply using the two where each works best and ignoring the differences.

Some other popular ideas in physics: light is both a particle and a wave. Undeniably, experiments appear to prove this, even though it seems absurd to me. A particle is matter, a wave is energy; and if Einstein (a celebrity by any definition) is to be believed, the conversion factor between the two is huge, something like 900, 000 to one if memory serves. And the two are interchangeable, at least mathematically.

The same holds true for electrons, matter and also at the same time energy. Electrons have mass. But they can also be used, just as light waves are, as a medium for imaging. Electron microscopes use electron ‘waves’ for this purpose, and we’re beginning to see images of things like atoms and even part of atoms and atomic structure.

Once again, I suspect we lack some crucial bit of knowledge to explain the apparent contradictions.

String theory was once celebrated, but is less so nowadays. And dark energy, as well as dark matter, has its investigators and proponents. It’s popular. Even though neither is actually understood beyond the bare theory stage, and even though the likes of me doubts their existence, and if they actually do exist then I suspect they’ll be much less common than current models claim.

Popularity is a funny thing. Galileo was popular among the general public, which brought him to the attention of religious authorities, and that eventually got him tried for heresy. But that very popularity made it politically impossible for those religious authorities to simply burn him in the public square, as they did others. But centuries later Galileo is still popular and those who accused him and tried him and convicted him are forgotten.

I wonder whether Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber will be popular 20 years from now? But Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and so many others, will still be popular as they are now, centuries after their deaths. Mozart, too; no celebrity when he died in poverty, but celebrated now.

Will even entire music venues remain popular? Will rap and hip-hop be around, or will they go the way of doo-wop? Few practitioners of that unlamented style are still around, and calling them ‘celebrities’ would certainly be a stretch. This is true of most popular music, too. Twenty or thirty years on, they are forgotten…and justly so.

And so I wonder how many of the ‘popular’ ideas in science will endure and still be considered relevant a century or ten centuries from now. The mathematics of the ancient Greeks and Arabs is still relevant as much as three thousand years later. The religions of those times, not so much. And the priests, ‘celebrities’ in their lifetimes? Forgotten, even their names lost to obscurity. Kings; popes, princes, once highly important, now forgotten.

Sic transit popularity.

Jobs, too, change. Pity the mathematician who studied to be a calculator before that job was replaced by a machine, or a computer before such machines became readily and cheaply available. How many now even remember what a card-punch operator actually did? And Heinlein’s novel Starman Jones turns on the mathematical ability of two people, one who also had eidetic memory. The common Apple or IBM computer of the late 20th Century rendered Heinlein’s story idea quaint. In Red Planet and a couple of others, the slide rule was the ultimate in calculating devices. Few even know what those are now, and even fewer could make use of them if someone were to hand you one.

Popularity is essentially fleeting. But a few popular things become classics and endure. And some ideas endure even when their originator never became popular. Indeed, some died without understanding that their ideas would live on.

Genetics; everyone’s heard of that. It’s a celebrity idea. But Mendel died in obscurity, even if he’s considered today to be the father of that discipline. And plate tectonics grew from the work of Wegener, who was ridiculed during his lifetime.

And as for celebrities in science, and popular people or ideas, only time will tell whether they are classics or whether they will be abandoned to obscurity.

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