The Curious Case of the Vanishing Scientist

Three one-hour programmes for TV

Stephen McGann goes in search of the vanishing scientist. A short series that looks at how scientists were invented, made themselves disappear and the dangers this poses for our future

 

Introduction

They are some of the most powerful people in society. They tell us how to live our lives. Their work has helped build the world that we live in. Their ideas have shaped not only what we know and think, but also the way that we know and think it. Yet one of their guiding principles is to pretend that they do not exist.

 

Programme 1. Inventing the scientist – In the first programme Stephen examines the origins of the scientist and the personal qualities that they are supposed to possess.

In the 17th century gentlemen of science could be trusted to give us reliable knowledge because they were gentlemen. In the 19th century the new professional scientists could be trusted because they were professionals. By the 20th century we could trust objective knowledge because trained experts had removed themselves from the picture so as not to obstruct the view. The most important quality for a scientist was to be invisible.

Programme 2. The Vanishing Scientist – It has provided evidence for the existence of God, helped build empires and given us new horrors that are the stuff of nightmares. Science is part of history, part of the culture which creates it, part of our changing visions of the world.

In this second programme Stephen McGann looks at the stories that we tell about science and the stories that scientists tell about themselves. Scientists’ stories of “the olden days” separate their heroes from the society that created them and the trick of invisibility gives a convenient way for heroes to avoid becoming villains – accept the credit when things go well and blame the “abuse” of science when they do not.

Programme 3. Labcoats and Limelight – There was a time when we could be heroes, when we could make significant contributions to the study of nature – a time when we were invited to join The Republic of Science. The age of the scientist changed that.

In this final programme Stephen McGann shows how inventing the scientist also meant inventing a new relationship with the public. It is a relationship that could threaten our future.

Science makes great television but there are dangers in science as spectacle. Stephen concludes the series with questions about science as theatre and the dangers of celebrity scientists being seen as part of a distrusted elite. Who owns science? How does it get sold to the public? Does science preserve power or challenge it? Could we still have a Republic of Science?