Ask a child to draw a scientist and you will almost without fail be handed a picture of an old or middle-aged man with facial hair and glasses. He will be wearing a lab coat. Astonishingly, adults asked to draw a scientist invariably follow the same pattern. Even more astonishingly, so do scientists (PDF).
Looking at the pictures of this year’s Nobel laureate scientists you can see why. These are the only scientists whose photographs penetrate the world’s media to any degree, and they are almost all old men – many with beards and glasses.
The thing is, their greatest work as scientists was usually done decades before these photographs were taken. Daniel Schectman was just 40 when he discovered quasicrystals (he is 70 now). Adam Riess, 41, was just 28 when he began his leadership on the project that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe. Ralph Steinman, who died last week aged 68, was 30 when he made his prize-winning breakthrough.
If your idea or discovery is revolutionary enough to win a Nobel Prize, it will almost certainly takes decades before colleagues accept it. Schectman’s quasicrystals simply shouldn’t have existed, according to all the normal rules; he was told he had brought “disgrace” on his research group, and was asked to leave. Riess was told by a colleague “in your heart, you know that this is wrong” when he first presented evidence for the existence of dark energy. Ralph Steinman’s colleagues insisted for a decade that he was mistaken about the potential of dendritic cells.
Even when the idea has become established, further decades pass before the Nobel Academy feel secure enough about it to make the award. And by that time, your looks have faded.
While sports and pop stars get exposure in their teens and twenties, our best scientists – the people we’d really like our children to emulate – are invisible until they are too old to be perceived as role models. And, when it comes to inspirational role models, looks matter, however much we'd like them not to.
On Twitter today, Schectman said, “if you're a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them.” Can I ask that you also put aside a nice photo of your young self to give to the Nobel Academy’s publicity department? Just in case.