Altmetric Blog

Interactions: Discovering Scientific Heroes

Jean Liu, 18th January 2013

Scientific Heroes

Up close and personal with the scientists

We know about the scientific work – but what about the people behind it? Unless the researchers are personal acquaintances or famous figures, we usually know very little about who was working behind the scenes. Occasionally, a scientist steals the spotlight away from his or her own research. In this week’s Interactions, we take a look at a few extraordinary scientists (who also happen to be unusually popular on social media) in order to show how being connected to the scientists brings us closer to them and their work.


Corresponding with Newton and Franklin

In 2011, the Royal Society made all archives of their journals openly available online, including those of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Having published its first paper in 1665, Philosophical Transactions has the distinction of being the world’s oldest scientific journal. The opening of the digitised archives meant that a treasure trove of science history was now available for everyone to access. Out of this fountain of scientific history poured original research papers written by famous scientists (including British naturalist Charles Darwin, British physicist Isaac Newton, and American polymath Benjamin Franklin), as well as more peculiar pieces, ranging from the quirky to the gruesome.

According to the current attention rankings in the Altmetric database, the most popular historical paper from the Royal Society’s archives thus far has been Isaac Newton’s letter in Philosophical Transactions (published in 1671). Notable for being Newton’s first scientific paper, the letter was mentioned by Boingboing, which led to a great deal of online attention on Twitter and blogs. (Read excellent blog posts by GrrlScientist and Emma, an astronomy blogger.)

Benjamin Franklin’s 1751 letter concerning his famous “kite experiment” was also highly shared, mostly by people in the United States (63% of tweeters were from the USA). Readers were left amazed:

Too cool–Royal Soc. has opened their entire archives including Ben Franklin’s kite experiment ht @unstableisotope

— MMAECK (@NCharles) December 30, 2011

How about reading about Franklin’s Kite experiment in his own words:

— Dustin Davis (@magicspoon) October 30, 2011

… or at least in want of better health and safety requirements for scientists back in the day:

@donttrythis I think this should have been marked “Don’t Try This At Home”, not “which any one may try”:…

— peasem (@peasem) October 26, 2011

Hundreds of years have elapsed since the works of Newton and Franklin were published, and so most people today are only aware of the accomplishments and theories of these men because of information from secondary sources. However, the availability of historical primary works online, coupled with the increasing use of social media to promote and share science, has revived a sense of wonder in scientists of the past. This signals an important lesson in understanding science: as necessary as it is to share current research, it is also worthwhile to share history. In order to know how far scientific progress has come, we should still look back to see where we’ve been.


Getting into Albert Einstein’s head

As a society, we’re curious about celebrities, and we wonder what makes them special. So what does a remarkable scientist’s brain tell us, if anything, about his or her intellectual abilities? After his death in 1955, Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein’s brain has been used to explore this very question, although whether peculiar features of his brain can really be taken as firm signs of genius has been debated (see Mo Costandi’s post on the topic).

Now, public fascination with Einstein’s brain may be at an all-time peak. Last autumn, an iPad app called Einstein Brain Atlas was released, allowing users to explore photomicrographs of Einstein’s brain from the Harvey Collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The release of the app was followed a few months later by the publication of an interesting article entitled “The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs” in Brain. The discovery of 14 new photographs of Einstein’s brain taken from different angles allowed a group of American researchers to analyse the external structure of the brain (particularly the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer) in new ways. Although some news headlines might have overstepped the study’s conclusions (e.g., “Why Einstein Was a Genius”) the study’s authors were careful not to generalise beyond Einstein, and avoided speculating about physical manifestations of “genius”.

The study’s detailed analyses of Einstein’s brain anatomy grabbed the interest of scientists (28% of tweeters) and non-specialists (55% of tweeters) alike, garnering intense attention on social media (primarily Twitter) and blogs. Tweeters had varying interpretations of the data, but generally seemed to appreciate being able to learn about a famous brain (and get a lesson in neuroanatomy at the same time).

Einstein’s brain was not spherical and other new insights into why he grasped relativity and I don’t.…

— Gretchen Reynolds (@GretchenReynold) November 22, 2012

Just for fun (don’t overinterpret).…

— C.P. Frost (@CPFrost6) November 22, 2012


Honouring Rita Levi-Montalcini

Einstein may be the most recognisable scientist of the 20th century, but a host of modern-day scientists are just as deserving of attention. One such person is neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini, who, on 30th December 2012, passed away at the age of 103. As news of her passing spread, so too did a link to her last scientific research paper, “Nerve growth factor regulates axial rotation during early stages of chick embryo development” (published in PNAS in 2012). The Altmetric score for this paper was very high (68 as of 17 January) due to numerous tweets honouring Levi-Montalcini and her extraordinary accomplishments:

Rita Levi-Montalcini, who died recently at 103, published her most recent paper at the age of 102…

— Ed Yong(@edyong209) December 31, 2012

Rita Levi worked with passion and enthusiam until the end. Her last research paper was published in February 2012…

— Rocío García Carrión (@RocioCarrion81) January 2, 2013

Tributes to Levi-Montalcini and her fascinating career also appeared within the blogosphere. (Notable posts include ones by Gary Stix and Vaughan Bell.) Many people, even some who had never heard Levi-Montalcini before, were moved after reading about her achievements:

@edyong209 an amazing woman I never heard of until today. A great life and wonderful achievements.

— michael calder (@mikjay5) December 31, 2012

@vaughanbell @edyong209 She woke at 5AM to go to work for years. She was my teacher at Wash. U. I will never equal her work ethic tho I try.

— Bert Gold (@BertGold4) December 31, 2012


The impact of a scientific hero

Alt-metrics were created with the impact of papers in mind, so what does it mean when online attention about a paper is actually focused on the author? In these situations, alt-metrics help to measure the legacy that a scientist leaves behind, showcasing the respect that people have for the work and for the person. Engaging in conversations about the scientists themselves can allow their ideas to endure, their brains’ uniqueness to shine, and their actions to inspire. As our society becomes increasingly connected, participating and collecting these discussions about scientists will help the next generation of researchers to discover their scientific heroes.

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