Yesterday I described how a Great Man of Science sat in my office and explained to me some exciting research done by one of my recent PhD students and me, as if the work had instead been done by one of our collaborators, a very famous scientist (the Other Great Man of Science mentioned in yesterday's post).
What did I do?
First I wanted to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding the conversation. Did he really have no clue that I was involved in this research or was he just expressing himself in an awkward way, focusing for some reason on the fact that my famous colleague supervises the lab in which one part of the research was done (by my student) and just not expressing himself well?
It soon became clear that he had no clue. His further statements proved it.
I have previously been in situations in which someone didn't realize that I was one of many co-authors on a paper, and that hasn't bothered me as long as I really was a minor co-author.
In the case under discussion here, however, I was offended because Great Man didn't even remember that we had met not-so-long ago (~ 6 months) at a multi-day workshop that focused entirely on this research, much less that I was one of the organizers of the workshop. He thought he was telling me something I didn't know.
In talking to him, it was clear to me that, in his mind, this research was associated only with Other Great Man of Science. Despite the fact that he had abundant evidence to the contrary during the workshop ~6 months ago, he had erased the existence of the rest of us from his awareness of this research: the students, a not-famous but nevertheless awesome colleague, and me. In his casual conversation about this research, the only one worth mentioning was the Other Great Man of Science.
Other Great Man of Science is definitely not responsible for this situation. He is a nice person, a quiet man, and a great supporter of all students involved in our project. He has been generous with his time and research facilities, and he is not a back-stabber. Our research collaboration involving 3 professors at 3 institutions and students at each place has been successful because of positive interactions among the groups.
For Great Man to believe that this research should be credited to Other Great Man, and to express this to my (apparently forgettable) face, with no recollection that I had even been at that workshop, was truly strange. It was not malicious. The Great Man's habit of savoring the names of other famous men was a feature of his visit to my department. At one point, he compared himself to Max Planck.
So this is what I did after swiftly contemplating my options:
I said something similar to what many commenters to yesterday's post indicated that they would have said. I said "Yes, of course I know about that research because a large part of it has been my work." Then I launched into a calm but very detailed description of the project, highlighting the work of my student, placing Other Great Man's contributions in context, and describing the evolution of the project. I wondered whether, even though he clearly didn't remember me, he remembered the excellent presentations of my former student, Young Awesome Scientist, from the workshop? I continued to elaborate for a while about the research, in what I hoped was an authoritative but nice way.
He was definitely somewhat embarrassed, although I don't think the feeling went too deep. He mumbled something about not being good with names and faces, then changed the subject to his favorite topic: himself and other famous people he knows.
Right after my monologue and his mumbled excuse, he said "Oh, so your field is Z? I know The Greatest Man of Z Science of the Last Half of the 20th Century. Have you ever met him?"
Indeed I have. I do get out now and then, including to workshops that I help organize on fascinating research topics that even attract Great Men of Science as participants, although some of them, despite being impressed by the research, have a selective memory about the experience later.
6 years ago