The FSP family has returned from its annual winter expedition to an interesting place. We went to see “the most beautiful floor in the world” and it was amazing.
Before visiting the most beautiful floor in the world, we spent some time in a big European city. The city was festooned with banners for a contemporary art exhibition at one of the city’s museums; it was impossible to miss these banners. The exhibition featured the work of a childhood friend of my husband’s, and it was strange to see this person’s name everywhere we went.
One day as we waited to cross a street, a city bus went by with a large advertisement for the exhibition and the name of the artist in gazillion point font. My husband remarked My name will never be on the side of a bus.
Our daughter wanted to know why his name would never be on the side of a bus, even if he does really really well in his professor job and becomes as famous as it is possible to become as a scientist. So we discussed the concept of limited fame, and types of fame other than that involving movie stars, presidents, and artists with exhibitions in big European cities. She was particularly intrigued by the concept of academic fame – i.e., that you can be internationally known (in your field) and technically be famous, but not in the name-on-the-bus kind of way. Then she wanted to know exactly how many people read our papers.
We are emotionally prepared to answer many difficult questions from our daughter about life and the world, but not this question. Her dad replied “4”, but that’s not right, except for maybe a few papers. He’s got some papers with citations in the triple digits, and presumably there are also a few people who’ve read but not cited his papers. I asked her Would you be impressed if the number were in the hundreds? She said no.
Then she wanted to know who is more famous: her mom or her dad. We argued about this for a while. My husband says I am because I’ve coauthored a book that is presumably more widely read than a typical paper and because I've written papers on a wider variety of topics than he has, but I think he is because his papers have more citations. We also argued about the sizes of our respective academic ponds and whether one is more likely to be famous in a small pond or a large pond. If your pond is small, are you more famous because everyone knows your work, or are you more famous if your pond is large and therefore more people might know your name?
We never agreed on the answers to any of these profound questions, but after that conversation, every time a bus went by with the artist’s name on it, my daughter and/or I poked the semi-famous MSP in the family and said Loser!, and then we all laughed.
10 months ago