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Science or Scientists in the Spotlight? A Wandering Scientist Asks

Every October the Nobel prizes are announced in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics. These prizes are subsequently awarded in ceremonies that take place on December 10, the birthday anniversary of Alfred Nobel, after whom the prizes are named. Having amassed a substantial fortune from his many investments and inventions, most famous of which was dynamite, Nobel stipulated in his will that the vast majority of his fortune would be used to give prizes to those who confer "the greatest benefit on mankind." Perhaps guilt played a role in the formation of this stipulation since his discoveries led to more efficient instruments of death.

The peace prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, while all the others in Stockholm, Sweden. The coveted Nobel prize is considered the highest honor for intellectual achievement. After the Nobel prize, well, there is really not much else one can seek. In addition to receiving a medal, a certificate and a sizable monetary prize, the laureate (or laureates -- up to three individuals can be awarded the same Nobel) joins a very small group of individuals who have achieved the highest honor. Besides the obligatory interviews and media coverage, the individual can also look forward to a career that has reached its pinnacle, with all the perks that entails, the greatest perk being fame itself.

I will not espouse a purist, what in fact may be an extremist view, holding that fame goes counter to seeking the truth, that somehow the latter is pure and the former impure. It really depends what the real drivers are for one's work. Is it for the sake of truth? Is it because it gives fulfillment to one's life? Or is it for the sake of becoming famous, obtaining power, or receiving a big prize? The Nobel is such a high prize that it should not be surprising if indeed some people's search for fame might impede their ability to seek truth. The Nobel sometimes may cause strife and even bitterness to those who, rightly or wrongly, did not receive it even though they came very close to it as they also worked with award-winning research. Others perhaps become obsessed with getting it. And others dream of getting it, to the point of losing touch with reality.

The desire to be famous is a human trait and thus one found in scientists too. The desire to be known, recognized and appreciated by other humans is a human characteristic. Those who study science are after truth or truths about the cosmos. In a sense, the Nobel is a high recognition for great efforts to achieve truth in a specific field. The question then arises, is fame an indication of having achieved some sort of truth? Clearly not. Many scientists, many economists, many artists, many workers in any field of human activity, in fact the vast, vast majority of them, work and achieve a lot, perhaps they are even happy about what they have achieved, but are never or seldom recognized by their peers or by society.

Despite all the human aspects, the true value of the Nobel is that it draws attention to important work, even from non-scientists. Yes, the fame, the media frenzy, the hoopla and all that last for a while but the enduring value is that it draws attention to some of the most important work in science and gives the general public the opportunity to hear about and understand science a bit more. As such, any prize fulfills an important role beyond any single person's fame. It provides a great opportunity for scientists to be recognized and non-scientists to become more engaged with science.

Nobel laureates should be celebrated but not more so than their respective fields. Fame and truth are not inexorably tied. One does not imply the other, one does not necessitate the other. Fame is presumably tied to how others view you. For the Nobel, it is particularly important how your peers in science or in economics or in social work view your work. Meanwhile, pursuit of truth is presumably tied to your seeking "something higher", something permanent, something beyond your own existence and fame. Following the lives of the many who get honored with prizes, who achieve fame, one can generally see a great commitment in pursuing truth, great continuous work. The search for fame may or may not be there. But the search for truth and the commitment are always there. It often means not giving up on one's own work. This is certainly the case with François Englert and Peter W. Higgs, this year's deserving recipients of the physics Nobel for their pioneer work in the Higgs field and boson. The Nobel was awarded to them some 50 years after the publication of their first papers.

The tenet of science is that there is objective truth. Scientific truth is after all more enduring, while a scientist's fame can be fleeting. Nevertheless, one can become famous for what later turns out to be untrue views. Ptolemy's fame and his Earth-centered view of the solar system lasted for roughly two millennia but it turned out to be untrue. This was replaced by the Copernican Sun-centered view, leading to Newton's physics and the rise of modern science.

This wandering scientist will explore with you in future blogs the nature of scientific truths. Are they permanently fixed in the great sphere of the collective human thinking, as the stars were thought to be permanently fixed on the firmament of the celestial sphere? Or will it turn out that they are moving about, wandering in this great sphere? After all, even the stars wander about. Everything flows, as the great ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said more than two thousand years ago. It might be difficult to put that in the spotlight. But we will certainly try.

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