Thursday, December 23, 2010

Impact vs Fame

I recently discovered a delightful blog by a young man named Jason Summers. Jason creates software, majors in physics at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and spends a lot of his leisure time philosophizing and studying “visual spatial cognition.” He says, “My goal in life is to understand what space and time really are, and how the virtual reality within our brains differs from the real world we live in.

But in a recent blogpost, Jason says he doesn’t pursue his interests for “honors and fame,” and he laments the facts that too many people these days want to reap the fortune or at least the fame of being “the next guru or sage” and that the brightest young people going into science don’t want to do “observations and grunt work which needs to be done,” but desire, instead, “to be the next Einstein.” Jason concludes by saying, “I believe that the men and women who have the greatest impact on the world for the better are unknown and do good deeds without asking for any recognition.

Here is the comment (slightly modified here) I posted to his blog in response:

Jason, while I agree that doing good deeds without expectation of rewarding recognition is laudable, I question your assertion that those who've had the greatest impact on the world are unknown. For instance, Jesus, for better or worse, has arguably had the greatest impact ever, and there's probably no one more famous.

It stands to reason that those who've had the greatest impact in religion, science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, technology, and other fields of endeavor are precisely those who have garnered the most fame for their accomplishments, whether or not they sought it.

Also, I can't say that I blame the brightest people for eschewing the laboratory for the chalkboard, figuratively or literally speaking. It seems to me that it would be an awful waste for a "monster mind" like Ed Witten to spend a great deal of time running mundane experiments designed to confirm other people's results. His singular talents are much better deployed, at least most of the time, in Einsteins' old office.

This was Jason’s thoughtful reply:

Hi Steve. You bring up some good points. While I for the most part agree with you, in some respects I also disagree. Though the pursuit of truth is admirable, I feel it’s just as important to work on projects and inventions which relieve human suffering. I suppose you never know what abstract research may eventually lead to, but even so, it’s very important that scientific research efforts work on the mundane aspects of life, improving the everyday lives of people on this planet. Einstein’s work is certainly valuable, but I think other unknown scientists in various fields are the ones responsible for the majority of my own happiness. Scientists at Intel designed my computer. Scientists from Sony designed this computer monitor. Scientists designed my stereo system, the navigation system in my car, my home’s heating and air conditioning systems, and the list goes on. None of these people are known yet they are responsible for most of what I value in life. I don’t feel it’s beneath a genius to work for a company and design a city’s plumbing and sewage systems. I think this is what my professor was trying to tell me.
What do you think. Do you think unsung heroes have had the greatest impact on our lives, or has it been famous people? And do you think the brightest of us should toil away at mundane labors in laboratories and “drafting boards,” or should they be applying their prodigious intellectual gifts to a “higher” or at least more intellectual calling?

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