Not as clever as Einstein? In death, it’s all relative

Asked how they would like to be remembered, high-achieving physicists cited intellectual accomplishments while others referred to personal qualities

April 14, 2016
People carrying model of Albert Einstein's head, Science Museum, London, England
Source: Rex
A mind to remember: productive scientists want their work to be their epitaph

In physics, perhaps more than in any other academic discipline, the giants of the field are lionised long after death: the achievements of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton in extending our understanding of the universe have elevated them to near-immortal status.

But what of less exalted scientists, who cannot aspire to such heights: how should they be remembered? A new study suggests that, if they could have their way, they would simply want to be thought of as having been nice people.

Joseph Hermanowicz, professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, interviewed 60 physicists working in US higher education about how they would like to be regarded in memoriam by colleagues, arguing that it would offer a new vantage point on how prestige is constructed in the academy.

Writing in The Journal of Higher Education, Professor Hermanowicz says that he discovered two distinct schools of thought. Many physicists wanted to be remembered for their professional achievements: “As a leader of something,” one interviewee said. “Something like ‘he’s the one who invented a theory’, like you would say Einstein invented relativity.”

Another respondent said that if he could do “something solid” in the development of physics and win the respect of colleagues, he could “die anytime”.

But many other interviewees said that they would be content to be remembered more for their personal qualities: for having been honest, congenial or hard-working.

Significantly, Professor Hermanowicz found a strong correlation between physicists’ professional standing and how they wished to be remembered.

Nearly three-quarters of academics working in top-ranking physics departments wanted to be remembered for their intellectual accomplishments, while less than one in five said that they would be happy to be commemorated for their personal attributes. In lower-ranked departments, only one in three physicists hoped to be remembered as leaders in the field, with nearly 60 per cent content for their personal characteristics to form their epitaph.

The most productive scientists in terms of publications were, likewise, those who most wanted to be remembered for their achievements in physics.

Professor Hermanowicz suggests that less successful physicists focused on how they went about their work as opposed to the results of their work “to prevent admonition from colleagues…who are more successful”.

“By invoking claims to a moral status, a scientist – relegated to a location peripheral to the major activity at the centre of science – provides an excuse as well as an explanation for not having fully realised one’s own ego,” he says. “Remembered as ‘being good’ by others in the profession thus becomes compensation for comparative failure.”

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities


Print headline: When I go, I want to hear a big bang

Reader's comments (1)

Sounds like many will be remembered for their egos and conceit.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

University of Oxford students walking on campus

University of Oxford snatches top spot from Caltech in this year’s World University Rankings as Asia’s rise continues

Home secretary says government will support 'best' universities

Man handing microphone to audience member

Academic attainment of disadvantaged students can be improved if they can decide how they are assessed, study claims

Italy's gold medallist

New measures to ensure universities are ‘not penalised’ for taking poorer students also outlined for next stage of TEF

Brexit from the EU

The historic UK referendum result is a challenge to the core beliefs of those attending this year’s EAIE annual conference, says Jack Grove