Yesterday's post and some of the comments reminded me of an incident I had completely forgotten about until now:
Many years ago when I was a young FSP, I spent summers at the university where my husband was a postdoc. This was back in the days when we needed physical access to libraries that contained bound volumes of journals, and internet access was rare outside of academic institutions. Fortunately for me, my husband's institution gave me a desk, an internet connection, and access to the library during my extended visits.
Late one night, I was sitting in a big, comfortable chair in the small library that was in the department, alone and reading journal articles. On this particular day, I was taking it easy because I had injured my back somehow (I don't remember how and have not ever injured my back in the years since, so it was a one-time bizarre injury thing). As I sat and read, in walked an Extremely Famous Scientist who was famous for the excellence of his research and for using his work to improve life for all of Humankind. In fact, he was more than just a Famous Scientist, he was a Science Hero, and there are not many of those. I taught about him in my classes. And as if that weren't enough, he was also well known for being a very kind person.
When I encountered him, he was also very ancient and frail. He looked around the library, saw that I was the only person there, and walked over to me. I was thrilled to have the chance to meet him. After apologizing for interrupting my work, he said "The trunk of my car is filled with many very heavy books and I am not allowed to lift anything. Would you be willing to carry them to my office for me?".
It was like something out of a Greek myth in which a random god appears and asks a mere mortal to do an impossible task, like carry an anvil up a mountain. If the mortal fails, he or she is turned into a sad type of tree or a loathsome invertebrate. Was I being tested?
Why did I have to have an injured back on that day of all days? Any other day I would have been able to help him easily, but on that day, I wasn't sure I could carry a trunk-load of heavy books from the parking lot to his office. Carrying the journal volumes from a library shelf to my nearby chair had been an effort.
But how could I say no? Every person on Earth benefits every day from his research. Could I really say "No, sorry, I can't help you with your books, but thanks for saving the planet and its people."?
I said "I'll be happy to help you" and got up to follow him out of the library.
Just then, the gods relented and, although I had not seen another person for hours, two grad students appeared at that moment and offered to carry the books. The Science Hero thanked me graciously for being willing to help, and I collapsed in my chair, immensely relieved.
Why had I been willing to risk further injury and possibly fail at the task he required just because he was a Famous Scientist? If a random Big Shot had wandered into the library and asked me for help carrying books, I probably would have explained about my injured back and declined to help. In this case, however, the Big Shot was someone who had done more than just be a brilliant scientist, and I sincerely wanted to help this person.
What about other types of famous people? What if my fellow artist Paul McCartney had asked me to carry heavy books? I think I would have said no. I think I lack the capacity for routine celebrity worship. Some evidence for this is the eternal struggle I have with my book co-author, who reads this blog (sometimes? always? perhaps I will find out now?) and who is much cooler than I am and who likes to insert mainstream cultural references into the book; e.g., mention of popular movies and famous movie actors. Even though I ultimately accede to his superior knowledge of popular culture and his instincts for writing books that people might actually read, in the text drafts I can't help deleting "Brad Pitt" and replacing him with "Orhan Pamuk", even if I know the change is temporary.
Now, if Orhan Pamuk asked me to carry heavy books from his car to his office..
2 months ago