The Parade of Heroes

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When the first two astronauts to visit the Moon returned to Earth, back in 1969, the support crew on the USS Hornet turned the TV on in the waiting room so the spacemen could watch the coverage of their splashdown. As they watched, Buzz Aldrin turned to Neil Armstrong and said, "Look: we missed the whole thing." The real Apollo mission, he realized, was the one we all saw together on television. Living through history is nothing like the way it turns out in the books or on your screen.

And biographies of historical people, too, are just dry, flattened versions of the flesh-and-blood people who made our history. Compiling a set of hundreds of online biographies for Earth scientists really brought that home to me, because I've known some of them in person before they became history. The online treatment of Keith Runcorn, for instance, does not capture the gravitas with which he addressed a scientific meeting, his ready eloquence and fluent command of 50 years' research. It does not convey the way his peers sought out his talks and leaned forward, smiling, to hear him.

But a truly frustrating thing in seeking the lives of great Earth scientists is that not so many are recorded on the Web. There are three reasons for this, the first of course being that the Web is still being built. The second, more important reason is that history tends to change science from its true state, which is the communal progress of a large group of workers under many leaders, into a linear parade of heroes.

This kind of history is like having a movie database that lists only the leading stars without including the supporting actors and bit players and important directors and technicians, all of whom have interesting stories. Over the 40 years I've watched the history of geology in action, the sheer depth of the cast of characters has impressed me more and more.

The third reason the biographical record on the Web seems so inadequate is that there are as many great living scientists, whose stories are still in progress, as there are historical ones. The public doesn't know about them yet, but I have watched them bringing forth fruitful ideas, publishing landmark papers, delivering electrifying presentations, being given medals. Today is a golden age in the Earth sciences, and it shows no sign of ending.

The online magazine Salon hit upon a great idea, I think, in its series of articles called "Brilliant Careers," which focused on the lives of living people. Geology could use a series like that. But while the Geological Society of America has a growing set of life stories called "Rock Stars" and the University of California Museum of Paleontology has a worthy set of bios related to evolution, these are almost entirely of dead people. I hope we can start to remedy that.

Perhaps the video age can do a better job. Each year, major scientific meetings are expanding their webcasts of major talks. As scientists gain skill with making their own videos, outlets like YouTube are hosting a growing stream of live-action talks. And of course there are massive open online courses or MOOCs, which can capture science teachers in action. All of these will live on after the people who make them, leaving the future with a richer record of scientists than ever before possible.

PS: One giant on my list would have been Warren Carey, the expanding-Earth theorist, one of the most determinedly wrong but widely respected geologists on Earth. Many have been the times he held skeptical audiences of American geologists at bay, a bear among beagles. Unfortunately Carey died on March 20, 2002, so I can only memorialize him.
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