Monday, January 31, 2011

Darwin, the unit of scientific fame

The journal Science has an article by John Bohannon on measuring an individual scientist's fame and influence using "a data set based on the trillions of words within Google Books, which currently represents 15 million books, 12% of those ever published." The proposed unit for this fame is a darwin, "defined as the average annual frequency that "Charles Darwin" appears in English-language books from the year when he was 30 years old (1839) until 2000." There are just three scientists -- Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein -- who have a fame of 0.5 darwin or more; so a more convenient unit for the others is a millidarwin (mD)!

Here's an excerpt from near the end of the article on what you can do to become more famous:

3. Write a popular book.

This is a risky business. You'll have to take a year off from full-time research to write a book, says Pinker, and "most of them are never read." But if you can pull it off, writing a popular book can launch you into fame. For most of his career, Pinker was a well-respected psychologist with about 1 mD of fame. But that changed dramatically after the 1994 publication of his book The Language Instinct. "That's when people started recognizing me in the street," Pinker recalls, "and I got an avalanche of unsolicited mail from strangers." And then came the invitations—to write articles on diverse topics, to take part in conferences in other disciplines—and "that was a godsend for me," he says.

In fact, once you've got a scientific career up and running, you might consider switching to full-time book writing. The extreme case is Isaac Asimov. His 183 mD of fame came not from being a biochemistry professor at Boston University, of course, but for becoming a titan of hard science fiction. Carl Sagan (152 mD), Rachel Carson (152 mD), Richard Dawkins (90 mD), and many others show the value of reaching out directly to the public. These days, that could take the form of a blog.