Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do and Die

One of my colleagues was recently at a dinner party comprised entirely of Scientists, and, at some point in the evening, one of the Scientists asked the others the following question:

If you could make a pact with the Devil and become supersonically, cosmically famous -- of the order of magnitude of Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin -- within your lifetime, but on the condition that you die within 6 years, would you do it?

I wasn't at the party, but when my colleague told me about this, my response was "That's insane. Of course no one would make that bargain."

Au contraire. Some of the men at the party said they would make that bargain, including one man who has a young child and who claims to be an atheist (and therefore who presumably doesn't believe he would be able to enjoy his cosmic fame after his death). He later confirmed to me that he was serious about this and wasn't just being dramatic (or inebriated).

How bizarre. I hope his child doesn't ever learn his thoughts on the fame vs. family issue, and I wish I hadn't heard about this pact-with-the-devil party game incident. Knowing that this particular person would be willing to trade time with his family for stupendous fame has altered the way I think about him. I'm not sure why -- I've always felt that some of my colleagues and I are not of the same species as each other -- but now I am thinking we must be from different phyla.

23 comments:

Dr. Shellie said...

Was his motivation simply to become famous, or to do something that would have a major impact on the world? The latter is somewhat more palatable.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

Hmm, I read that question differently. If we rephrase it as, "If you could make the sort of contributions to science and knowledge that Newton or Galileo did, but you would die within 6 years, would you?" Imagine having invented, like, calculus. I'd certainly consider exiting early if that were my legacy. But then, I have no kids.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I am totally with you on how differently I would view someone who'd be willing to pick fame over family. Although sadly, that is a hardly surprising response. I know of this story about a foreign graduate student whose grandma has recently been diagnosed with late-stage cancer - so, perhaps a few months or so left of her life, who knows. The student went up to her PI, asking for his advice/permission to go back to her country to see her grandma, probably for the last time. Guess what this sweet advisor told her? "Well, you are teaching now so it is a problem, and your oral exam is coming up in a couple of months so you really need to get more data for that...plus, wouldn't air tickets be expensive now? Perhaps you should wait till May or so to go back."

Excuse me? If I had a dying grandma, the price of air tickets would certainly not be on my mind, regardless of how I would come up with the money. I am sure what goes through this person's mind must be, "oh, old people die one way or another, what's the big deal? Whats the point of seeing her for one last time?"

And the sad, sad thing is, this guy does not seem to care about his own family either, so why would he care about anyone else's?

That's what I call an evil, heartless person.

Jonah said...

but what of the source of the fame? what if you are famous for having been wrong? or having been downright evil? shouldn't the more interesting question be, would you be willing to sacrifice your present life for the sake of making a truly meaningful contribution to humanity (irrespective of fame)?

Niket said...

"Knowing that this particular person would be willing to trade time with his family for stupendous fame has altered the way I think about him."

The problem with hypotheticals is that it pitches work vs. family and asks you to make a choice. Life isn't really like that. I wouldn't be surprized to see people who chose to take the bargain would, in their real life, choose to put "family before work;" nor would I be surprized to see those who refused the bargain would put "work before family."

Pact-with-the-devil games are just inane... you are reading too much into them.

David Moles said...

Can I stipulate that I'd really accomplish something as important to the progress of science as what Darwin and Newton accomplished? 'Cause that might actually make it worthwhile.

PhysioProf said...

I call shenanigans on your male colleagues. They are just engaged in bullshit macho one-upmanship, trying to prove to each other what manly-man science-warriors they are who care little for such mundane trivial concerns as friends, family, and even life itself, and are focused solely on the glories of the battlefields of science.

They are totally full of shit: they do not weigh the importance of their lives any less than you, and if genuinely presented with such a choice, they would surely choose as you (and any sane person) would. They are the science equivalent of right-wing chickenhawk fighting keyboardist bloggers who talk about what manly warriors they would be in the Iraq war, except they're not fucking there and know that their coddled privilege ensures that they never fucking would be, and thus they know that their glorifying of war and aggrandizement of "manliness" has no consequences (well except for other people and their children, who are not so coddled with privilege; but that's another topic).

Same as with your manly-man science colleagues: they know they are not really presented with this choice, and they know they never will be, so their macho posturing has absolutely no consequence and they can let it all hang out.

In case you haven't noticed, PhysioProf has little patience for this kind of ridiculous macho posturing by weak self-deluded manly-men, who are actually weak deluded fools who cannot percieve the world and themselves in any way except through the sad sick lens of patriarchy.

Scientia Matris said...

Last week my current boss informed me that he needed to leave our current lab because he had "more to do before I go to my grave". He then insinuated that if I didn't follow him to the new lab that I would be leading a worthless academic life. This is the same man who has no kids, whose wife and two PAs organise his life for him and who tells me that I need a 'life coach' to organise my family so I can spend more time at work writing papers! Who will sit by my grave and weep when I'm gone? I'm reasonably certain that it won't be my work colleagues, but my family. 'Fame', or 'success', would be great but one's legacy should surely comprise a little more than that? To seriously forsake time with one's child smacks of arrogance. Not that I profess to have a good handle on Darwin's history, but the man trained for the clergy and didn't seem to have 'fame' in his sights... Serendipity and a brilliant mind perhaps, but I wonder what his response at this dinner party might have been?

science cog said...

Success means far more to men than it does to women and some men are willing to give up too much to achieve it (some women too, but fewer). I noticed that blogs written by male scientists have a very different look and feel compared to blogs by female scientists. I wanted to keep my blog gender neutral, but quickly found it impossible to be genuine and gender neutral.

EarlyToBed said...

Euuwww. What a ridiculous scientist party game. Perhaps a screening of _Damn Yankees_ (just one example) might be useful for this group.
FSP--Keep up the great reporting!

TW Andrews said...

I think the answer for me would have to depend on whether or not my fame was gained from something popularizing but relatively trivial in terms of day-to-day benefit for the average person (I'm thinking Stephan Hawking and black holes as an example of this) or if it came from something which gave tangible, day-to-day benefit to humanity (Watson/Crick & the discovery of dna is my example here).

In the first case, the answer is obvious: "Are you crazy?" In the second, what would be the right choice for me is much less obvious.

The Bear Maiden said...

Your world is completely alien to mine, which is why I enjoy popping over here from time to time. Ah, the beauty of the internet.

And... you've been tagged. Hope you don't mind!

PA said...

Wow. Doesn't this just put everything into perspective? These people want fame SO MUCH that they are willing to sacrifice several years of their lives. I had always thought that these single-minded people just didn't realize what they were missing. It isn't that; it is just worth the sacrifice to them.

The only thing I can imagine is that they haven't enjoyed their lives as much as I have mine. The people who are truly famous do not usually chase fame. They seem to fall into it chasing something else. To chase fame just seems a little pitiful. "Look at me. Look at me!" Please. To do something worthy of fame certainly is a lofty goal, but what if no fame comes from a huge contribution? Those who enjoy life NOW, don't care if their names are spoken later. Those who work only for fame have a narrow field of vision.

chemcat said...

There's a nice feature on the NY academy of science. They interview heads of great labs. The most successful claims to have been focused on training great people through great science more than just chasing results. would be nice to ask one of his mentees whether it's true...

As for ambition and science: I was chatting with one of my colleagues, who has a child the same age as mine, and is a super-aggressive type. I said something like my time between 5.30 and the kid's bedtime being spent just on doing things with her. He told me that in his family, they have dinner at 5.30. The two yrs old is put in her room at 6.30, papa reads to her until 7, then he goes away to work on his computer and she "reads" her books in bed by herself. What time does the kid fall asleep? "oh, between 8.30 and 9". So the guy leaves his kid alone in her room for almost two hours every evening.
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but I'm so happy I'm not his kid.....

Anonymous said...

Hat tip to PhysioProf.

Manly-man science-warriors! That just made my week.

Helen said...

This reminds me of another hypothetical I heard, but a more likely one.

A number of career pilots have tossed around the notion of a one-way manned mission to Mars. My dad said he'd volunteer in a heartbeat.

Unlike the scientist insta-fame one, I can understand this one. Combat pilots volunteer all the time for jobs with a near certainty of death and much less certainty of any useful outcome, and the discussion always poses limits -- must be a not-young pilot, no kids or kids all grown, etc. It makes sense to me, but then I grew up around combat-trained pilots -- I wonder how bats this sounds to the rest of the world.

I'm with physioprof that the insta-fame one was just stupid posturing.

Mark Whybird said...

What if he believes his fame will be of enormous benefit to his child(ren)?

Charlotte said...

Wow, was there enough room at the party for you, that guy and his ego?

Anonymous said...

So all male colleagues in your life appear to be chauvinistic macho jerks, while all female colleagues are these wonderful human beings who are being harassed and mistreated by chauvinistic male jerks.

Now, I am not saying that this doesn't represent YOUR reality, but what would you say about a male scientist blogger who interprets every single thing his female colleague say as being gossipy, bitchy, whiny and manipulating, while his male colleagues being complete opposite - hardworking and totally professional?

I enjoyed your blog until I realized how one-dimensional and biased your perception of the events is. It appears that everything that happens to you, everything someone says to you can and will be interpreted as some sort of insult or offensive comment.

PhysioProf said...

So all male colleagues in your life appear to be chauvinistic macho jerks, while all female colleagues are these wonderful human beings who are being harassed and mistreated by chauvinistic male jerks.

You really think anyone's buying your absurd bullshit here? This ain't WorldNutDaily, dude.

Anonymous said...

1) I'd do it. Or rather, if I had the opportunity to make a contribution the revolutionized the field and improved the lot of humanity by way of increasing knowledge *in the fashion that e.g. Darwin is known for*, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
But then, I am unmarried and without children (now at least)... I would be suprised if my view doesn't radically change if that status does.
2) I'd never do it for the fame without the contribution- a la Watson (who was entirely superfluous in the discovery of DNA... actually, you could argue that about Newton and Calculus, though it's hard to know how much the competition helped Leibniz). And this might invalidate the question. Basically, I'm not convinced the 'hero' theory of scientific history has value.
3) It would be pure hell to have the fame a la Einstein, without the contribution. Ewwwww.

Anonymous said...

I read recently of a real life case where a mother had to choose between her cause and her daughter, and she chose the cause. Her daughter seems to resent her mother for this, and for enjoying the awards working for the cause has brought. I would hope I would put family first and turn down the devil because fame is thin and insubstantial. And hasn't anyone here read Faust?

MathGeek said...

As people have noted, the proposition is amenable to multiple interpretations, so would be very unwise to accept as-is. It's not the fame I'm interested in, and I wouldn't take People magazine style fame without substance even if you paid me.

But if I could know that I have made a lasting positive difference to the world, I would die happy. Even if I didn't get the credit. (It would just be harder to convince me that I was negotiating for something that wouldn't happen anyway.)

The only thing is, the Devil is notoriously stingy. He'd probably give me a great discovery due to be made by someone else, which would not satisfy my goal at all. After all, if Darwin hadn't been around, biology would actually have progressed pretty similarly, only the creationists would be demonizing Alfred Russel Wallace.

But with all those caveats, if I could make or cause to be made a significant scientific advance that would not otherwise have been made, I'd trade my life for that.

Hell, I'd kill myself tonight if I could leave a proof of the extended Riemann hypothesis as a suicide note.