Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Wrong Kind of Famous

Years back, when I was working at STL (Standard Telecommunications Laboratories) at Harlow in the UK, I recall a corridor conversation. A senior researcher, Dr Robert Milne and myself were talking to one of the managers, George and the conversation turned to career aspirations.

For George it was a matter of climbing the corporate hierarchy, but he turned to us and said "I expect that everything you do is geared towards making you famous!" It was a quip, and he said it with a smile on his face, but there followed an awkward silence, which George picked up on: "Right then ... perhaps we should talk about something else" and the stalled conversation got round to rebooting.

A few days ago, my wife Clare made a similar observation to me, suggesting that 'speaking at conferences, meeting senior clients, writing a book', it amounted to "you want to be famous."

It seems both churlish and self-deceiving to deny such a well-known motivator, but I rather think that both Robert and myself did not in fact want to be famous. 'Being famous' involves an unacceptable amount of hassle, socialising and travel! What I do think we want, like most intellectuals, is that our work should be famous, while we remain personally unaffected.

And I would add one more thing, that the work should be famous because it is good, and not merely through some accidental fad or mere momentary significance.

Other supportive anecdotes: I met a mathematician at a conference once - I sat next to him at dinner - who said the most important thing in his life was that some (highly esoteric) mathematical structure had been named after him. And then there was the scientist on the TV programme 'Seven Up' - and therefore already famous - who confided that his dearest ambition was to be better known for a scientific achievement than for appearing on that programme.

Sometimes we reflect on surveys which show that people are unable to name any existing scientist apart from Stephen Hawking ... fame is evidently a pretty selective thing!

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