cause celebre

RoyaljenlucEven hard-core physics geeks tune in occasionally to the annual Oscars telecast. Tragically, I missed most of the films up for nomination this year, due to the all-consuming throes of book writing. (I did see the Best Picture winner, Crash, in the theater, and
thought it was well deserving of a win. For an amusing science spin on
the Oscars that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of this
post, see these articles in SEED and Nature.)

For many, Sunday night’s telecast was primarily an opportunity to soak in the glamor of the red carpet and make snarky comments about the disastrous fashion choices of the Beautiful People in attendance. Not that I’m one to criticize. Diehard fashionista Jen-Luc Piquant likes to remind me that,
left to my own devices, I’ve been known to exhibit the fashion sense of
a myopic armadillo. In fact, just before my first book reading, one of my stylish friends took me aside and murmured, "You do realize, don’t you, that it’s no longer 1995?" She took pity and helped me pick out a spiffy new outfit for the occasion.

I console myself with the knowledge that I’m not alone in this respect. As a general rule, physicists — and let’s face it, your average science writers — are not known for their taste in haute couture. This is a quality we share, apparently, with actress Michelle Williams, mercilessly derided by the Oscar Fashion Police as an "overdressed daffodil." Apart from financial considerations — the cost of the typical Oscar ensemble (borrowed jewelry included) could conceivably fund several runs of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven — physics doesn’t have the equivalent of a red-carpet event. I loved Keira Knightley’s fetching, wine-colored off-the-shoulder gown, but assuming I could ever afford such a thing — Vera Wang is a bit out of my price range — it would look terribly out of place at even the poshest parties and receptions planned for the upcoming APS March Meeting in Baltimore.

This chronic lack of spectacle is a shame from the standpoint of public outreach. The field could use a touch of glamor, if for no other reason than to combat all those wild-haired mad scientist stereotypes. Fortunately, a glimmer of hope may be found in an emerging new breed: the Celebrity Physicist. This is not the same thing as being a Nobel Laureate, which is based solely on the merit of one’s scientific research (and perhaps a touch of serendipity). Celebrity Physicists might have a Nobel Prize, or they might not. What makes them celebrities is the fact that their name sparks instant recognition in the public sphere. Albert Einstein was one, of course, despite his fondness for frayed sweaters and baggy pants, as was Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan. In terms of name recognition, Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene certainly qualify, as does Lawrence Krauss of The Physics of Star Trek fame. A handful of others might be described as up-and-coming "B" list celebrities. (People like me don’t even warrant the "D" list, being neither physicists nor celebrities. Not that I’m bitter…)

Much has been written bewailing society’s fascination with the rich and famous. There is indeed a rampant Cult of Celebrity that explains, among other things, such unlikely phenomena as how Arnold Schwarzenegger came to be elected governor of California, in defiance of all known laws of physics. But just like technology is neither innately good nor evil — its moral/ethical properties are determined largely by how it is applied — celebrity culture has its advantages. We need Celebrity Physicists. They are "names," serving as the public face of physics. They have that certain je ne sais  quois that sets them apart from the rank and file physicists. Because of this, they tend to generate interest and excitement wherever they deign to appear, lending a faint whiff of fame’s aura to the physics enterprise, which is otherwise largely ignored by the public at large. In publicity parlance, this is known as "buzz." Physics needs better buzz, and Celebrity Physicists provide a handy mechanism for generating it.

As always, there are drawbacks. This new breed has expensive tastes, which conflicts with the notorious thriftiness of most universities, physics labs, and nonprofit organizations — a thriftiness more than justified by the ongoing federal funding woes in the physical sciences. For one thing, Celebrity Physicists like to fly first class. (Jen-Luc Piquant heartily approves. She refuses to travel via anything less than a private jet, fully stocked with gourmet chocolates, organic sodas, and if possible, Ralph Fiennes. She doesn’t get out much, needless to say.) An honorarium with several zeros might be nice. They don’t like to ask, but if you offer, they prefer limos for airport transportation, and penthouse suites large enough to accommodate several boxes of their latest book, to be autographed at a catered book signing. Soon they’ll be demanding one of those
remote-controlled LongPens invented by novelist Margaret Atwood to sign
books for her legions of fans when she is thousands of miles away.

Over time, their egos may grow to galactic proportions. And on rare occasions, a Celebrity Physicist will exhibit the kind of diva-esque behavior normally associated with spoiled rock stars or the tabloid-fodder tantrums of teen queen Lindsey Lohan. A story currently circulating on the physics grapevine concerns a well-known physicist and author who was asked to visit — pro bono — a few local schools prior to a speaking engagement. Said physicist refused, dismissing the request with the declaration, "I get nothing out of visiting schools. They don’t buy my books." Another noted physicist demanded a prohibitively large fee in exchange for speaking at a small scientific conference sponsored by a nonprofit organization. When the organizers made a counter-offer, the physicist expressed deep umbrage at being offered such an insulting amount, and suggested they simply donate the money to a scholarship fund — the equivalent of telling them to stick it where the sun don’t shine.

(Nota bene: No amount of pleading will persuade me to reveal the identities of these individuals — not even threat of torture. I have sat through countless droning press conferences, dreary hearings on Congressional reports, and oodles of dry technical papers illustrated with grainy overheads, so I have a very high threshold for pain. And if the Celebrity Physicists in question happen to read this, recognize themselves and take offense — get over it. Being gossiped about is the price of your fame. At least there are no physics paparazzi. Yet.)

Granted, it’s not always easy being a Celebrity Physicist. Because the breed is quite rare, one is constantly in demand, receiving scads of requests for interviews and lectures — and no doubt more than a little wheedling from the ubiquitous fundraisers. High speaking fees are just one way of winnowing down those requests. One’s publisher is always breathing down one’s neck about the need to generate better sales to earn back one’s ridiculously huge advance. This requires the hiring of a professional publicist. Plus, there is a lot of stress and a great deal of travel associated with this kind of star status. Minor creature comforts understandably take on greater importance. Really, is a spacious suite with well-stocked mini-bar too much to ask after a long flight and several hours spent signing books and glad-handing the public?

Then there’s the inevitable backlash that follows that first surge of popularity. The physics community has a bad habit of simultaneously admiring and resenting any physicists who achieve populist fame and fortune. When Stephen Hawking gave a public lecture in Atlanta at the APS Centennial meeting in 1999, I heard many physicists sniff dismissively about his scientific work, his writing style, even the content and delivery of his lecture — but they all crowded into the auditorium to hear Hawking speak, if only to engage in the universal sport of ripping the poor guy to shreds afterward. It’s human nature.

So I am not without compassion for the beleaguered Celebrity Physicist. It’s the underlying attitude of self-absorption and greed I find objectionable in the two cited incidents, especially the statement that one gets nothing out of visiting local schools. My jaw dropped when I heard about it. My first reaction was, "Hey, maybe it’s not just about you…"  I visited a local junior high school during a recent visit to Seattle — my niece is a student there — and found it to be a richly rewarding experience. Granted, I’m only a first-time author whose Amazon ranking certainly won’t make J.K. Rowling break a sweat over the prospective competition. But I relished the opportunity to interact with these eager young minds, and daresay I got as much, if not more, out of the experience than they did. I didn’t get any money or book sales out of it, but that wasn’t the point. I’m as keen on selling my books as the next writer — we all have to make a living — but there are other, more intangible benefits to be gained from things like school visits that have nothing to do with filthy lucre.

I’m not advocating that Celebrity Physicists become full-time philanthropists and donate 100% of their time and effort. They have every right to profit from their hard-earned endeavors and bask in the limelight of the public eye. When organizing physics outreach events, we’d do well to remember that the laborer is worthy of his or her hire, and if we want the best, we’d better be prepared to fork over a little extra. That’s the way of the world. But let’s try to balance this with a healthy dose of altruism — a rare commodity in any sector, but one that is particularly needed in physics. After all, if the Big Names in physics scorn education and outreach because they don’t get paid enough, or don’t sell enough books (which amounts to essentially the same thing), there won’t be much of a technically-literate audience for physics and other science-specific books in subsequent generations. Physics will become irrelevant. And there certainly will be a dearth of well-trained scientists to replenish the technorati workforce, in an era where science and technology pervade every aspect of our daily lives.

So, please, Celebrity Physicists, we love you. In fact, we could use a few more of you. But save the enormous speaking fees for well-heeled corporate and private events, cut the nonprofits a little slack now and then, and remember to use your fame and fortune to inspire young people. They are the future of your chosen profession.

And if Cyber Celebrity Culture is looking for a fresh new face… Jen-Luc Piquant is ready for her close-up.


5 thoughts on “cause celebre”

  1. Of course the real celebrity physicists are more likely to show up at the APS April Meeting (particles, astro, gravity) than at the March Meeting (condensed matter, atoms, plasma). For reasons that remain obscure, March-Meeting type folks are less likely to write popular books and host TV shows, although that may be changing.
    Now I have to go pick up my tux from the dry cleaners. It’s not easy inspiring the younger generation, you know.

  2. Well, astrophysics has that built-in “Gee whiz”/Big Picture element that ties in so well with space-age science fiction… This makes it far more interesting than talking about left-handed materials (i.e., negative indices of refrection). But condensed matter, atoms, plasmas and the like are so fundamental to modern technology — I think there’s a market opportunity there. 🙂
    If you’re wearing a tux to the Dallas meeting, I might have to pick up that Vera Wang gown after all… Science writers can’t be shown up _too_ badly.

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