I’m in the curious position of having met a great many Nobel laureates. I’ve had dinner with some, gone drinking with others, had long conversations with a few. I’ve gone to the Lindau meetings twice, where Nobelists are everywhere. Furthermore, I’ve known brilliant people who have done phenomenal work of Nobel quality who would never be awarded one because the Nobels only cover a very small, limited number of subjects.
And I realized that I’ve known more Nobel prize winners, and with greater familiarity, than I’ve known plumbers. I’ve probably known only 3 or 4 plumbers, and not well at all: they come to my house, they do a job, and they leave, and we don’t go out for drinks afterwards. So my knowledge base for plumbers is a little weak, but I can do a comparison anyway. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Nobelists know some things very, very well, and you have to respect their achievements. But if you talk to them at any length, you’ll discover there are some things that you understand better than they do, and you may even find some glaring gaps in their knowledge. They are not paragons of all things, but they are very interesting to talk to. Plumbers, on the other hand, definitely have some arcane and practical knowledge that will awe you with its application. I’m going to call this one a tie.
People are people, and like all people, some Nobelists are appalling jerks, others are kind and generous. Some you want to spend more time with, others you want to flee and go puke in a bucket. In my small sampling of plumbers, the ones I’ve known have all been helpful and eager to solve my problems, although I do have to acknowledge in the abstract that there was that Joe the Plumber guy, who was in the puke-in-a-bucket category, so maybe some do exhibit the negative range of behaviors. Still, using my personal knowledge, I have to give this point to the plumbers (also, knowing Jim Watson may have skewed the Nobelists unfairly downward.)
There have been occasions in my life where I have desperately needed a plumber. I have never needed a Nobelist. Point: plumbers.
Has anyone made a popular video game starring running, leaping Nobel prize winners? I thought not. Point: clearly in favor of Mario. (not Capecchi, despite his great qualities).
I have respect for Nobelists — they’ve accomplished something great. But I also have a reasonable perspective on their work, and know that most often it was the product of huge numbers of people working together, and they are just lucky enough to be the figurehead representing a large team. On the other hand, that plumber who came to our house in the middle of the night when a water main broke and a surging waterfall was gushing into our basement…that man was like unto a god. A hero. I bow down before him. All the points: plumbers.
So please, have some reasonable perspective. I agree completely with this article that looks realistically at Nobel prizes. Stop with the hero worship and appreciate them for what they actually are. Look around you at all the other people who have skills and talents that don’t earn fancy gold medals and media adulation. I’ve been seeing a lot of over-the-top idolization of a few scientists lately, and it’s tiresome.
No more heroes. At least, not until we find a Nobelist who can fix a spewing toilet and makes house calls. Then we’re going to have to come up with a bigger prize than the Nobel.