Friday, June 1, 2012

Fame for its own sake

After giving a talk in Milan, my host, another visitor from the US, and I had lunch. Discussions meandered from our work to our profession and then to the topic of how trailblazers often do not get credit for their discoveries. A book that I am now reading, "The Infinity Puzzle," describes this phenomena in the development of the standard model in particle physics.

In 1783, the geologist John Michell wrote a letter to Henry Cavendish proposing the existence of a super-massive body whose gravity was so great that even light could not escape. The letter was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1784, yet this incredible human mind is not generally recognized for the very reason that it should be - it was way ahead of its time.

People who end up getting credit for a discovery usually live at a time when others are around to appreciate the work. Being a good communicator also helps. Our conversation at the outdoor cafe culminated in an interesting question. Would it be better to enjoy fame and fortune in this life for work that is posthumously found to be wrong; or, to make a discovery that is only appreciated long after we are gone?

I would rather play a part in the development of a new paradigm of thought that is right than to get credit for a transient fad that ends up being wrong. What would you prefer?


  1. Feynman always said the best part was discovering the truth of QED and not getting the Nobel Prize. It almost seemed like getting the Nobel prize annoyed him. So it should be a no brainer that being a part of discovering something right is preferable

  2. I agree that getting it right is what is meaningful. Feynman had it right...