Friday, April 30, 2010

What I Said

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.


Anonymous said...

If he didn't remember your involvement in the multi-day workshop, why would you think this brief interaction should have any impact on this douchebag?

Anonymous said...

I'd say unbelievable, but I been around enough to know this is quite common. Ahhh I'm at a loss for words. Stupid great man of science.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It's a common trait that although this kind of pompous blithering fuckwad loves to talk about himself and all the other famous douchebags he pals around with, he really woefully lacks self knowledge and acts like a dickbag to protect his own fragile ego. It's sad to go through life like that.

These are the people who suffer the most at the end of their lives, because they realize that they frittered away their time and effort on the wrong shit.

(Cue the douchesplainers rushing in to defend this smegstain.)

RJB said...

The only thing worse than a name-dropper is a name-dropper who doesn't drop your name!

This story shows the power of celebrity in science. While this guy may be an annoying boor, he and others like him doubtless have significant influence on tenure, promotion and funding decisions. Some of that influence comes simply through promoting some researchers in conversations at conferences, office visits and the like with people who will write tenure letters.

I hope young readers will draw a lesson from this: be an effective self-promoter. Being a good scientist is not sufficient for professional success. You need to elevate your visibility by going to conferences (and speaking up), maintaining lines of communication with people outside your own institution, etc.

Yes, this sounds cynical and, for young idealists, even offensive. C'est la vie!

Anonymous said...

CPP -- I agree with your diagnosis, but you are entirely too optimistic to assume that he will suffer in some karmic way. This kind of dick behavior is rewarded at all levels in our society, and has no doubt served him very well throughout his career.

Anonymous said...

At least you faced this as a professor. When I was applying for jobs as a grad student, I had asked one of the faculty to write me a letter of recommendation.

He took me to his office and spent the next 30 minutes sharing his deep observations on science...its past present and future and how he had made amazing discoveries as a grad student. He kept naming his achievements one by one...and I kept shrugging and saying something along the lines of "That's why you are you!" and playing the part of ardent admirer/worshipper to perfection. Then, he proceeded to name some of the greatest scientists of the 1990s and how they all adored his work. He actually ended his speech with "I have great connections".

At least the letter of recommendation he wrote me fetched me decent jobs so I guess sitting through the speech was worth it.

Anonymous said...

I doubt he has a fragile ego.

It reminds me of the old cartoon about dogs. What do Great Men of Science hear? "Blah blah blah, Great Man of Science, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Great Man of Science blah blah...."

John Vidale said...

Perhaps he is not what he used to be. The performance you describe does not generally lead a person to a stellar scientific reputation.

Forgetting all but a few famous "friends" from a workshop he PERSONALLY ATTENDED just 6 months earlier would indicate to me that he's lost the right stuff to be a scientist, which involves tracking many more minute and disparate facts for much longer.

I just spent a few minutes trying, but I can't think of anyone still in top form in my field as oblivious of who did work that inspires them as your example.

An alternative interpretation would be that his descriptions transformative and very exciting were flattering hyperbole, and he is barely following your field. Then, he would be guilty of acting as an authority without qualifications, but perhaps not incompetent as a scientist in his own specialty, as in my first case.

I can't say that I've noticed MORE self-doubt in elderly "pompous blitherers", as CPP suggests, although that tendency would be gratifying and karmic.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

He compared himself to Max Planck?!? Fabulous. I'm going to start comparing myself to the most famous historian I can think of when talking to other historians. I'm sure they'll be very impressed.


a physicist said...

At one point, he compared himself to Max Planck.

The funniest line in the whole amusing story! I hope he keeps making that comparison, that simplifies the rest of the world figuring out quickly what kind of person he is.

Ms.PhD said...

LOL, I love these comments.

Coming from a lab with one of these PIs, and his herd of little wannabe pompous name-dropping blitherers-in-training, I developed an annoying habit of correcting anyone who cited papers as being by the name of the last author (Great Man of Science), pointing out that the correct citation is actually by the name of the first author (making sure to emphasize the first name too, if it was a female nobody, student or postdoc). I don't know if I influenced anyone's thinking, but it was fun to be annoying like that!

I still think a database system that circumvents journal publishing would help do away with some of this hero-worshipping nonsense. Most PIs would have no data of their own to deposit. If we learned anyone's names, it would be on the basis of their actual work.

A girl can dream, right?

ChemProf said...

Great Man of Science sounds a bit odd, mentally. Though he appears not to be alone.

Unknown 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?"

Oh, yes. And I even remember him.

Anonymous said...

When he compared himself to Max Planck, you should have said something along the lines of:

"Really? That's too funny, because I was just thinking this morning about how much I remind myself of Marie Curie..."

Anonymous said...

Man... I forget people CONSTANTLY, and I'm not even famous yet. I'm going to seem like the biggest dick ever if I manage to get far in science.

One of the problems is freakin papers in biology have 10 bajilion authors half the time so if there's 1 name you already know, that's the one you're likely to remember.

I think I'll be capable of keeping up up with my subfield, but when discussing others' fields (which I might still think are cool and so may want to discuss) I suspect I will screw up 90% of the time. I hope people realize that I want them to correct me...

Anyway, the guy's a jerk for at least not getting really embarrassed once he was corrected. :p

Margaret L said...

Honestly, I think this guy is losing it. I'm sure he's been an arrogant, self-absorbed namedropper his whole life, but this strikes me as the onset of senility. I bet that very soon he will again be telling somebody about Project X by Other Great Man of Science.

Entre Nous said...

Leave the politically correct diplomacy in the ladies room where it belongs and stand up for yourself. Bluntly. There is no place for name-dropping publicity hogs in science.

On a lighter note, rest assured this man has a severely inadequate ego...

Kevin said...

"Man... I forget people CONSTANTLY, and I'm not even famous yet."

Me, too, except that I am famous in a small subfield. I have solved this problem by never dropping names. I will freely admit to not knowing who did some great work. If pressed, I might hazard a guess, but surround it with caveats about my disability with respect to remembering names.

When students want a citation, I tell them to google the key words of the concept. Or, if I'm at my computer, I google it myself so they can see how to answer questions like that themselves. Some students never do learn to find things for themselves---I rarely accept one of them in my lab.

Anonymous said...

So glad to see that Anon. #1 promptly articulated the first word that came to my mind about GMOS: douchebag.

Dear FSP, you are awesome. Cheers to you!

not a scientist or even an academic but an appreciative reader nevertheless

EliRabett said...

True story, Eli once went to meet a friend at a place in a country where English is not well spoken. Friend had to beg off because of a meeting connected to his funding and said, go talk to my colleague he does stuff like us. Colleague spoke less English than Eli spoke his language, but we soldiered on, and he said, more or less, we have been doing this and that. Eli said, funny, we also have been doing that and this. Eli said, we just published, friend said we just published too. Curiously in the same journal.

We were co-authors, put together by a mutual friend. Both groups has independently done slightly different but complementary experiments.

Anonymous said...

"I hope young readers will draw a lesson from this: be an effective self-promoter. Being a good scientist is not sufficient for professional success."

This is what I hate about science. Self-promotion should reap benefits for those who have the stomach for it, but it shouldn't be outright detrimental to those who don't. I dont' care if I never become a superstar or reach the highest pinnacles of fame and glory, but NOT promoting yourself shouldn't cost you your job or career, your very livelihood.

This is why I left academic science. I saw that the only people left standing were those who engaged in aggressive self promotion while those who didn't, lost their jobs or never had any opportunities to establish their careers in the first place.

Anonymous said...

He compared himself to Max Planck?! You should have replied "and how many physical constants and research institutes are named after YOU?"

Anonymous said...

I totally think that this was my adviser! (Except that it wasn't, because you and he are clearly not even remotely in the same field). Sad that this Great Man of Science has at least one (semi) identical twin...

Anonymous said...

so if it's common and accepted practice to attribute the work to a paper's last author (the PI/ Great Man Of Science), how does anyone else - like the FIRST author - ever get anywhere in their career?? Seriously. At what point is one allowed to take credit for one's work rather than have it be attributed to your boss and have this be the socially accepted norm?

this is one of the things that I find very messed up about science. Why does the lab manager get credit for work he did not do himself but simply because he provided resources to the actual workers? how would those very credit-grabbing people feel if the credit was attributed not to them but to their grant officers??

Unbalanced Reaction said...

You rock, FSP.

I've encountered so many GMoS, that it is just what I've come to expect. I'm surprised when a GMoS *does* remember me (although I try to mask it lest I appear meek or unsure of myself).

DrDoyenne said...

I could give many examples of similar experiences to that of FSP.

However, here's an exception:

My husband (Sort-of-Famous Scientist in his field) is accustomed to being fawned over, while I was rarely recognized/ acknowledged (this was before DrDoyenne became a Sort-of-Famous Scientist in her Subfield).

Husband once traveled to another country to work with colleagues. Met with graduate students, one of whom was doing dissertation in DrDoyenne's Subfield. When husband was introduced to this student, he replied that the student might know of his wife, DrDoyenne, who does research in Subfield.

The student's eyes bugged out and said, "YOU...ARE...THE..HUSBAND..OF DrDoyenne???" He then went on to quiz him (in broken English) about what I was like, etc. Husband was a bit deflated, but mostly amused.

Husband, to his credit, called me soon after to tell this story. It made my day.

Kevin said...

"I saw that the only people left standing were those who engaged in aggressive self promotion while those who didn't, lost their jobs or never had any opportunities to establish their careers in the first place."

This has not been my experience. The aggressive self-promoters often get flushed at tenure time, if their accomplishments don't match their claims. What I've seen is that some amount of self-promotion is helpful, but not essential, and that too much self-promotion is more harmful than too little.

John Vidale said...

I find the angst over self-promotion troubling.

I agree with RJB. Scientists need to establish and promote their expertise and track record. Science is not a field in which hermits can simply mail in brilliant papers, and harvest bountiful grants and adulation, except in rare cases.

It's similar to conversation, or dating, or life in general, for that matter - modesty is fine, but the discussion is not going anywhere unless participants reveal their point of view and quality. No need to be a long-winded jerk, but passive behavior works poorly, and passive-aggressive responses (which were suggested in abundance for this example) are not ideal either.

neurowoman said...

Well, given this description, I wonder if the GMoS has a quite genuine neurologically-based memory problem. I already have difficulty remembering names and publications, though the gist of the science sticks with me. It's likely to get much worse as I get older. At a certain point, I wonder if people just give up, and rehash the names of the people they are most familiar with, in order to have something resembling a conversation. The name-dropping is probably a separate long-cultured habit that protects him from irrelevance.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Why does the lab manager get credit for work he did not do himself but simply because he provided resources to the actual workers? how would those very credit-grabbing people feel if the credit was attributed not to them but to their grant officers??

This is a fucking delusional view of the role of a PI in science, but typical of trainees who convince themselves that they "do all the work" while the PIs "do nothing". It's laughably wrong.