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Mens Sana in Corpore Sano? Beauty and body performance in Science

A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a friend.  He is a disability-rights activist and was very upset by how the Italian media had decided to cover the news of Prof Stephen Hawking’s death. It seems that most Italian newspapers had decided to portray the famous scientist as being finally freed from his wheelchair. In heaven, they intimated, he would be free to pursue his work without the limitations of his disabled body. My friend, who is a wheelchair user, takes the view that most wheelchairs users - like him - see their wheelchair as an instrument of freedom. Not a limitation. The limits, he says, are very often imposed by others in the way they shape or construct the physical environment. Stairs would be an example of this. It was important to remember, he said, that Stephen Hawking was able to pursue his work in spite of his disabled body. Given the right instruments and means of support (including assistance by another person), the physical disability didn’t pose any limitations to Hawking’s ability to be extremely successful, to revolutionize his field, and to bring his message to millions of people, most of whom were not astrophysicists, or physicists of any kind.

As the reader might have picked up, the language around the body is not particularly helpful when we want to describe the relationship between the tangible and the intellectual aspects of our activity.  Did Stephen Hawking work with his body?  Or perhaps within his body?  Sometimes we would say that he had a body. Sometimes that he inhabited a body. Obviously, what we lack is a real understanding of (and appropriate language to describe) the interplay between bodies and minds.

When I started my DPhil, 9 years ago, I was introduced to a satirical website, called “Prof or Hobo?”. The quiz is easy to understand: there are a series of picture of men, with untrimmed beards, long hair, and scruffy clothes; the user must indicate if the person portrayed looks more like a university professor or a homeless man. Sometimes the choice is not easy. As much as this game could be tasteless and even offensive, it underlined a certain disdain for fashion in academia. This was also noted by Jonathan Wolff, at the time professor of philosophy at University College London, who opined in the Guardian that “academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work”.

More recently, science and the academic world in general seem to have become “cool”. Now being “geeky” and “nerdy” is in fashion, thanks to TV shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” and websites like “IFLS - I F*****g Love Science”.  IFLS regularly publishes content that is appealing to the general public as well as being based on solid scientific research. They even have an online shop that sells t-shirts with science-related images and “science jewellery”. For many people then, knowledge means pleasure - especially if it can be acquired like this. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that a real understanding of a discipline also takes a lot of effort. Today it is beginning to look as if all the struggle, the nights in the library, the time spent in a lab with no windows, have been wiped away and replaced by a polished image. Real knowledge has been traded for fun anecdotes. They can be rapidly consumed and are likely to be rapidly forgotten or discarded. This kind of approach to the consumption of knowledge doesn’t come without risks. Are research and knowledge being reduced to products that have to be marketed and sold, which generally means presentation by beautiful, able bodied, young people?

Last month, Prof Mary Beard, an English classicist who produces regular TV shows for the BBC, complained about how an American broadcaster had decided to cut her presence on her latest production.  Beard accused the American network of editing the show because of her appearance as a “slightly creaky old lady with long grey hair”. In other words, the content of the show, an exploration of human creativity and its development over centuries, was considered appealing, but not if presented by an old woman with long grey hair.

Since the 1980s, Prof Hawking has become exceptionally famous outside the academic world thanks to his ability to make his complex studies intelligible to the general public. Even in this, he was a pioneer. In recent years, he has participated in comic shows, TV series, and even cartoons.  His efforts to reach out to the larger public have surely given hope and encouragement to many young scholars with disabilities and long term illnesses. They find it easier than most to imagine the incredible struggles this man must have endured in order to achieve such an extraordinary career. In fact I am not sure that people who haven’t experienced such physical limitations can have the same appreciation of the difficulties as those who have. Sometimes I personally feel that most viewers don’t even want to go beyond his robot-like look and voice that have become his trademark.

Knowledge should be open to everyone, of any age, race, (dis)ability, and I am incredibly thankful that today scholars can count on an instrument like the internet to communicate both within and without the academic community. What I fear is that the public’s appetite for anecdotal science will transform knowledge into a consumer product, with too much emphasis on making it attractive and pleasing for a general audience who may lack the theoretical competence to understand it fully. This would leave space for fake scientific news, as well as the cherry-picking of information by the public. In this day and age, we shouldn’t require scholars to look fit for the part (whatever that involves) in order to be an effective communicator.  We shouldn’t expect them to look clever or have the air of a genius. What we need are competent communicators who are able to convey complex messages, whether they look “cool” or not.

About the Author

Dr Francesca Ghillani is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Francesca was awarded a DPhil in Sociology from the University of Oxford, under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Harper. Her doctoral research identified four key dynamics that regulate the interplay between ageing, migration, and bodily practices.

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