Friday, July 04, 2008

Rock Star Scientists, II

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..

11 comments:

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

If Pamuk asked me to heft a box of his books, I might first give him a lecture about editing. I liked My Name is Red, but then it went on about twice as long as it needed....

I hope this comment comes through ok. My cat stepped on the keyboard and now all the text onscreen is half the normal size. I didn't even know that was a possible function. The F keys??

ycurl said...

I am a regular reader (a female -Turkish- postdoc at science department in USA) of your blog. I haven't left any comment before but this time I saw the name of Orhan Pamuk and I wanted to write something. I always wonder how people react Orhan Pamuk's writing especially foreigners. He got a Nobel but if you go and ask people in Turkey if they read Pamuk's novels, many people will tell you they gave up at some point. I feel always his writing is very calculated and complicated to read in his native language. I know this is not the place to discuss his writing or his literature style but still I want to hear what do you think about his book? Many of things he wrote is related to cultural and I want to understand if he really captures people from different cultures.

The Chemist said...

Wow, that sounds awesome! Not the hurt back part of course, the famous scientist part.

Though I suppose if Brad Pitt asked me to help him with a trunkful of books, I would wonder what he was planning on doing with them. I would certainly be curious about any classes he would be qualified to teach.

Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson said...

I hope this comment comes through ok. My cat stepped on the keyboard and now all the text onscreen is half the normal size. I didn't even know that was a possible function. The F keys??

You can try Ctrl + and see if it helps. Most major web browsers use Ctrl + and Ctrl - to adjust text size.

Female Science Professor said...

ycurl, I've read Snow, My Name is Red, Istanbul/Memories, The Black Book, The White Castle, The New Life, and various essays by Pamuk. For me, his writing (in English translation) is complicated, beautiful, and interesting (with the exception of The New Life, which I didn't like).

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Haha! Since my department at LargeU is well-ranked, we get several Rock Stars each semester (sometimes each week, depending on one's standards for Rock Stardom). Sadly, my high expectations for their presentations are frequently not met due to any combination of superior attitude, ill-prepared presentation, or bad manners.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
OK, here's what a social psychologist might say, if she or he were drawing from self-affirmation theory:
It would threaten your sense of self quite a bit to turn down Dr. Science Hero. Every time you taught about him in the future you'd have to remember the story, it would be uncomfortable to reconcile with your image of who you are, and so forth.
Here's what anonymous admiring blog-reader (myself) would say:
Next time you have an injury, rehearse to yourself how you will say no when people ask to help you. Because it's hard to come up with that kind of thing gracefully on the spot.

Anonymous said...

...when people ask to help you.

Whoops, I meant to write, "...when people ask you to help them."

EliRabett said...

I think you answered your own question

"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. . . . 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. "

BTW, you are lucky with the back thing. Such stuff tends to go on for ages.

prof j said...

Rock star scientists in the tabloids.

dying to know said...

Oh please tell us who the Rock Star was!? I am dying to know... Although as a political scientist, not a real scientist, would I know the name if you told me??