The other bright stars in the sky
Now that Stephen Hawking has gone, who will be the next superstar space scientist? Lauren Fuge surveys the field.
Last week the world lost an incredible mind: Stephen Hawking. Hawking needs no introduction — his name is synonymous with intellect, determination, courage and humour.
To many, the fact that he lived for 55 years with motor neurone disease is just as breath-taking and inspiring as his brilliant scientific research, which delved into the world of hard-core physics, including black holes, relativity and cosmology.
But Hawking was really catapulted to fame by stepping beyond the research bubble to share his knowledge widely, asking and answering huge questions with humour and accessibility. His 1988 popular science book A Brief History of Time became a bestseller, and his distinctive voice appeared in pop-culture media including Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and the Pink Floyd song “Keep Talking”.
When Hawking died, the public outpouring in response was astonishing. Many media outlets hailed him as the “brightest star” of science, a star now extinguished.
Bright as his star may have been, it was not the only one in the night sky.
Let’s take a look at a few space scientists who, by combining their brilliant research with a public profile, are well on their way to becoming the next Most Famous Space Scientist In The World.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Already a superstar in the world of astronomy communication, Neil deGrasse Tyson is the obvious first choice for this.
For over 20 years Tyson has been the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He also hosts the podcast StarTalk, writes popular science books such as Death By Back Hole (2007), and appears on late night TV shows, in Stargate Atlantis, and on The Big Bang Theory. Perhaps most notably, he hosts the TV show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a successor to Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 series.
Though sometimes over-excitable and mildly obnoxious, Tyson does a damn good job of spreading his passion for science.
Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall made a name for herself in 2015 with the curious book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. The bizarre-sounding tome quickly sped to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s this down-the-rabbit-hole quality of her work that launched her into the public eye.
Randall’s research focuses on particle physics and cosmology, spanning a whole host of universe-explaining theories — all requiring a flair for out-of-the-box thinking. Luckily, Randall has this in spades, as well as a knack for rendering complex cosmological quandaries accessible for the everyday reader.
Randall has appeared on talk shows, on an episode of the The Big Bang Theory, and conducted speaking tours across Australia and US. Her enigmatic research and easy authority have led to her being profiled by various publications from The Guardian to the New Yorker to Cosmos.
Columbia University professor Brian Greene is a celebrity string-theorist who has penned a clutch of popular science books that you’ve probably seen at your local bookstore, including The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.
Most appealingly, Greene recognises that to communicate science, you have to be fresh and compelling. He’s the co-founder of the World Science Festival, an annual event that includes science-based discussions, theatre, musical performances and more, reaching millions of people. He even adapted his children’s book, Icarus at the Edge of Time, into a live stage odyssey with an original orchestral score by Philip Glass — a fantastic step up from how most researchers explain their work.
Many celebrity scientists are men who began their public outreach mid-career, but not Katie Mack, who has just moved into her first faculty position at North Carolina State University, US. Her research spans exciting cosmological mysteries, and she has a particular talent for bringing the universe to non-scientists, especially on social media.
With Alan Duffy, she co-hosts a YouTube series called Pint in the Sky, where they shoot the breeze about dark matter, alien life, and supermassive black holes — all while sitting in a pub.
Mack is also super-active on Twitter, where she once memorably delivered a sick burn to a climate-change denier that went viral. It was retweeted by J.K. Rowling and reached mainstream media. Two years later, her short, funny style has swelled her follower count to cool a quarter of a million.
Mack writes for more traditional publications such as Scientific American and Slate, and is a regular columnist for Cosmos. Her wit, down-to-earth personality and conversational writing make her a science personality to keep an eye on.
UK-born Alan Duffy is a starry-eyed astrophysicist with the gift of the gab. Currently based at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and serving as the lead scientist at the Royal Institution of Australia, Duffy seems constantly to be on Australian television or radio explaining the latest astronomy news.
There’s no doubt that his accent and charming looks have helped his popularity, but Duffy knows what he’s on about, with an impressive research background in the nature of dark matter and the evolution of galaxies.
Personable and passionate, Duffy has a stellar future.
Nicknamed “Madame Saturn”, American planetary scientist Carolyn Porco is responsible for some of the most iconic pictures taken in space. An accomplished researcher and a literal explorer of the solar system, Porco led the imaging science team of the Cassini mission that orbited Saturn until 2017.
But not only did she process the images for other scientists, she also made sure they played to the public’s sense of wonder. Porco also possesses excellent taste and a talent for education, recognising that images taken by scientific missions aren’t just for science — they also reveal the universe’s beauty, which can be an inspiration for everyone.
Along with creating stunning images, she writes popular science articles, appears on television and radio, has hosted documentaries, been the science advisor for movies including Contact (1997) and Star Trek (2009), and has given two TED talks.
What list would be complete without mentioning the poster boy of science, Brian Cox?
This English physicist with swooping hair works at the University of Manchester interrogating the intricacies of particle physics. You might know his dulcet tones from his Wonders of… television series, though he’s also been behind the camera for a variety of other shows. He has authored a bunch of pop-science books, is the co-host of The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast with comedian Robin Ince, and jets off on speaking tours around the world.
Aside from his charming Manchester accent, Cox is a captivating presenter because he is such a natural and lucid communicator, with plenty of charisma and humour to boot. The Guardian once called his presentation of astrophysics “visionary” and even referred to him as “the BBC's successor to Sir David Attenborough”.
Have your say! Who do you think is the best media-friendly scientist in the world today? Tell us who and why by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org