Monday, January 07, 2008


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.


Anonymous said...

I think you'd definetely win the "fame game" if your blog weren't anonymous... I've been reading you for almost a year and you never knew it! I am really curious as to where you went on holidays, more clues please? ciao,

Anonymous said...

I'm with commenter one. This blog will get you more fame than any set of papers short the Nobel, and if your skills as a scientist even remotely match those as a blogger....

The humor in the comment is much appreciated by those who have been in the busniess awhile, but the truth behind it is also worth considering. Kids can unveil the "man hidden behind the curtain" in profound ways and this is an excellent example. I was a bit sad to think about the fact that you are right about the number of folks who read even the best cited papers. Unless you become the very top person in your field, this is your "fate".

However, what is cool and you should tell your daughter is that science is a collective enterprise. Lots of bits and pieces from folks like you and I get put together into a truly beautiful picture. I teach both cell and developmental biology and cancer biology, and its striking to see how much we have learned in the last twenty years, when all our work is summed together. I am proud of the work my lab does and the insights we have added to the mosaic.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

We've had this question, too. My daughter asked whether we knew anyone who was "famous". I deduce (but do not know) that the question was induced by having a classmate whose parent has won an Oscar. I tried to name some famous people (I don't think I qualify, but my husband, and others have a degree of fame within their particular ponds). She was also not impressed. Her goal was conventional fame (the bus would have been great, I think) . I think she's probably right. The people I know have success, but not fame.

Scientific fame seems to come through communicating, and not doing the science -- interesting, but I think not surprising. I recently stumbled on a book that purported to be about how people became scientists, but I ended up putting it down, because none of the folks fit my definition of scientist -- they were, instead, science writers.

Female Science Professor said...

winnie, if you search on the phrase "the most beautiful floor in the world", you will probably figure it out..

Anonymous said...

Here is your measure of fame. Googling
"the most beautiful floor in the world" gives FSP as the third result.

Anonymous said...

What about humility? What about teaching your child that being famous is not the be-all-end-all? What about teaching your child that there are many ways to be a successful and productive member of society - but one that will never be famous! Not everyone should be famous - and not everyone should strive to be famous! One should strive to be the best they can be, and presumably to also help others in whatever way they can do best.

And - one can do those things and help others, even without being famous.

(please note - this isn't meant as criticism ... just to explore an alternative view)

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting. Kind of sad for me, since I identified most with MSP and your daughter in this scenario.

My name will never be on the side of a bus, and I continue to question that, as I have since I was a child.

I have always wondered if most people are born with this wish for acclaim, and if only a strange subset of us never really recover from the inevitable realization that we'll never have it?

Btw, I think Mark P is living in an idyllic bubble. Science might have been a collective enterprise once upon a time, but at least in my field, calling it that sounds absolutely ridiculous.

revintraining said...

I wish I could've gone to a European city when I was young. Your daughter is lucky!

EcoGeoFemme said...

Your blog is now the second result on that google search.

I also agree with winnie.

Anonymous said...

who the hell wants to be famous?!

now, where did you all go diving?

Anonymous said...

My graduate advisor WAS on the side of a bus - a shuttle bus of a certain national lab that she was associated with. It was a bizarre thing to see your boss on a bus going right by you...but I guess that would mean that it is possible for a scientist to be on-a-bus-kind of famous.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to follow up on my previous comment and Ms. Ph.D.'s reply. I don't think I live in a bubble but do think I have a longer perspective than I did when I started out in this business almost thirty years ago.

When I began, fame wouldn't have entered my mind. I started because science was so fun, and I couldn't believe they paid me to do it. Going to my first scientific meeting (the "corn conference") and seeing that there were hundreds of folks who loved it like I did was amazing, and attending my first "fly meeting" was similar. Eventually I did get considerably more cynical and I do check my citation index, but I still maintain that viewed with a long lens science is a collective enterprise.

Work of which I was a part as a student is now in the developmental Biology textbooks, and I teach it to my undergraduate students, explaining to them that thirty years ago we had no idea how development was regulated at the molecular level, and no concept that the genes that regulated it were shared by all animals. That is one of the coolest discoveries of the last fifty years, and its fun to have been a part of it.

Mark P.

Anonymous said...

We need to remind ourselves that a paper that is "cited" is not necessarily a paper that is "read" :-)

See, for instance,

Anonymous said...

i'm guessing you were in London at the Tate modern.

Anonymous said...

It is probably safe to assume that the number of people who have read your papers or MSP's is significantly higher than the number of citations. Between papers for classwork, papers for work-work, and the occasional paper for fun, the number I have read is probably already in the hundreds, and I am fairly early in my career. Unfortunately, there is no way to account for this, other than possibly the reams of paper consumed. So at least add a few zeros after MSPs '4,' even though there is no way to easily quantify such things.

I have to say that the number of people who have read a paper is probably not an accurate way to measure overall fame. Your students (probably) know who you are, as do coworkers, colleagues, and advisors. In the ever-important scientific networking game, reading a paper is not a prerequisite to being well known. And if you look at nobel prizewinners who are famous in history and the media, the number of people who have actually read the original papers is probably very small compared to their noteriety.

Somewhere, somehow, Einstein has been on the side of a bus, and many people will recognize his name and face. Most of those same people will have only a vague idea of what e = mc^2 means, much cited his research. In this case Einstein has become a cultural icon and is famous for that, as much as his scientific acheivements. So you are probably both more famous than you give yourselves credit for, although probably still not in the impress-your-daughter kind of way.

I wonder if Einstein ever thought he would be on the side of a bus?