Thoughts on fame



Chuck Doswell

Posted: 07 November 2010 Updated: whenever

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @. However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.


My friend Arnau Amengual asked me to write something about this topic - what follows is my attempt to satisfy his request. I'll begin with one of my favorite quotations, from the movie, Krull. A young prince (the hero of the story) is trying to recruit a gang of brigands to his cause and, because the leader of the gang seems reluctant to join his quest, the prince suggests that if they succeed in the task the prince wishes to pursue, the gang members will become famous. The gang leader replies:

And fame?... It's an empty purse. Count it, and go broke. Eat it, and go hungry. Seek it, and go mad!

For me, this short quotation summarizes most of what I'm going to say in the following. If you read no farther, you'll have the essence of it.


My professional career

During my life as a scientist, I've achieved virtually all of the goals I set for myself as a young man. In the process, I’ve become "famous" within certain circles. This never was a goal of mine. I simply went about trying to become a science professional, doing whatever was required to accomplish that objective. I did research, published papers, made presentations at conferences, served my professional community in various ways when given the chance to do so, and so on. I admit that I'm pretty outspoken regarding my opinions and believe that it's one of my responsibilities as a professional scientist to do precisely that. If you're reading this, you may already know one facet of that willingness to share my thoughts: a substantial body of writings on the Web.

Me as a TV "character"

My most obvious bit of affectation is my cowboy hat, which my wife encouraged me to wear shortly after I took my first post-doctoral job. It's become my "trademark" and it has a number of advantages:

  1. It keeps the sun out of my eyes, and the rain off my head
  2. It allows my friends to find me easily in a crowd
  3. It allows those who wish to avoid me their best chance to do so

Perhaps owing to my professional activities, my hat, and my reputation for outspokenness, I became a target for media interviews for several years. Thus, my friends and family could see me on TV tornado documentaries and such. My friends and family tell me occasionally, with apparent awe, "I saw you on the XYZ Channel last night!" This notion that my presence on TV is worth something to them puzzles me, but of course, if they find it meaningful, then good for them. For my part, being seen on TV isn't something even remotely significant. I'm not excited about having my face appear in the homes of my friends and family. I didn't do the interviews to become "famous". Rather, I agreed to be interviewed in hopes that I'd be able to explain the science of severe weather to the viewers of these programs. Unfortunately, the reality I discovered is that such efforts are a pointless waste of my time, and I don't do them at all, anymore. But there's always those pesky re-runs …

My small measure of fame

A newspaper reporter requested an interview with me recently and as I was in the process of declining her request, she told me she hadn't realized how famous I was until she had run a Google search on me. My response was: "Doesn’t the fact that you had to do a Google search on me tell you that I'm not very famous?" If I were famous like Will Smith, Paul McCartney, Paris Hilton, Lebron James, Barack Obama, or Kim Kardashian, then virtually no one in the western world would have to look me up on the Web to see how famous I was. They'd know I was famous! My so-called fame is the classic case of a small fish in a small pond.

On rare occasions, people have asked for my autograph. Sometimes, people want to have their picture taken with me, or brag to their friends about having seen and talked with me on a storm chase. Total strangers want to become Facebook "friends" with me - for the most part I decline such "friend requests" by the way. If someone thinks I'm famous, I'm willing to give them my autograph and such, but I draw the line at becoming Facebook friends with every stranger who makes the request.

Compared to this quite limited taste of fame I'm describing, I can't even imagine what it must be like for truly famous people: rock stars, sports stars, movie stars, political figures, etc. But I can say without hesitation that my modest experience with it has convinced me I wouldn't want that kind of fame, ever. I'm not necessarily all that concerned about my privacy, but the notion that I couldn't go anywhere without being fussed over, that the paparazzi would be sticking their cameras into my life all the time, that tabloid papers would be full of wild speculations about my sex life, or whatever - why would anyone really want that? Certainly not I!


Rich and famous?

If you consider just who is truly famous, most of the really famous people in the world are politicians, wealthy people, and entertainers. One can question the extent to which politicians routinely deserve their fame (and whatever fortune they may accrue as a result of their fame). In principle, successful business executives earn their high wages as a direct result of their business performance. Unfortunately, of late, it seems that many corporate CEOs have become rich by fleecing their corporations, to say nothing of the clients of those corporations. Some of them are now much more infamous than famous and have created a business recession by their corrupt practices and greed. Despite his philanthropy, Bill Gates is widely seen as a greedy bastard willing to do almost anything to make a buck, like the "robber barons" of old. The oil/energy and banking/investment industries have a lot of detractors of late, for good reasons.

Most entertainers have some talent that they've managed to sell. In some cases, their talent is simply that they're beautiful women, or handsome men. There can be big money in the broad spectrum of activities that could be called "the sex trade", including those who don't sell their bodies for sex, but use their bodies to achieve fame, nevertheless. In other cases, famous entertainers have a real talent for sport, or some artistic skill. Modern western society offers a substantial amount of leisure time, and many of us have some disposable income, so large numbers of people are willing and able to pay for concerts, sporting events, movies, record albums, art exhibits, and the accoutrements that go with such entertainment (t-shirts, posters, membership in fan clubs, and so on). The money is there to reward famous entertainers with vast fortunes. Since entertainment (including sports, of course) is one of those facets of life that can command large amounts of money, its best and most famous performers can earn a lot as a direct consequence of their abilities (or looks, or both).

On the other hand, science generally never commands vast wealth. Our technological society logically should be deeply and thoroughly concerned about science, since technology is directly connected to science and technology has transformed western life in very important ways. But only a self-selected few people retain any of the curiosity with which most of us were born, putting that curiosity to use for science. The vast majority of people willing to invest $200 in a night out for dinner and a movie would never consider offering that $200 to support the work of their favorite scientist. It would be unusual for people to have a favorite scientist (unless they themselves were scientists), whereas almost everyone has their favorite musicians, artists, sports figures, race car drivers, and so on.

Many "big science" projects involve relatively large investments (e.g., the Manhattan Project, the Large Hadron Collider, the Hubble Space Telescope, etc.) but these investments involve hundreds of scientists and governmental support. This might raise the issue of why governments support science, when most individuals in that society likely would not support science. That's another topic, though, and won't be pursued herein.


Famous scientists?

In general, from what I've seen, very few scientists of any sort become truly famous. Robert Oppenheimer had both fame and subsequent disgrace (the latter was undeserved and a huge injustice). Albert Einstein became a cliché figure for the rather eccentric deep thinker whose thoughts were so lofty as to be beyond comprehension by ordinary people. Stephen Hawking is famous both for his physics and his physical affliction, but the average person has no clue about his physics. Richard Feynman became famous because he's something of an eccentric (like Einstein) and because of his role in the investigation of the Challenger disaster. Some, like Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau, or Neil deGrasse Tyson have taken to popularizing science via TV (and, lately, the Internet also has become important for this). For any truly famous scientist, such fame may have earned them some considerable income, but I doubt that any of them have become fabulously wealthy. And popularizers often are targets for various types of criticism from other scientists, some warranted but mostly unwarranted. It seems some scientists resent the fame that science popularizers obtain.

My "fame" has offered me the reward of being invited to speak around the world, with my expenses for that paid. That's not necessarily money in my pocket, but it's a tremendous privilege, nonetheless. My version of fame has allowed me to be a reasonably well-paid professional and enjoy a comfortable life style. I'm not wealthy in terms of income and I never actually sought money at any point along the way. I've always been paid what I consider to be a fair wage in return for what I do. I think I've given my employers what they paid for, and perhaps more. If for some reason, someone inexplicably decided to shower me with cash, I'd likely not turn it down (unless it involved someone having a lot of control over what I say and do, or asking me to do something I consider unethical). But I'm not about to hold my breath until that very unlikely event happens. I doubt very much there's anything I could actually do with my skills and experience as a science professional that would be both ethical and worth a fortune! In meteorological science, it's difficult to become rich without doing something unethical, or coming from an already wealthy family. Wealth is not intrinsically important in science unless it can be used to support more science.


What does fame actually mean? defines fame as: "widespread reputation, esp. of a favorable character; renown; public eminence: to seek fame, as an opera singer."

Therefore, fame implies that someone has become a recognizable figure to most people within some circle. The number of people within the circle in which you have fame can be thought of as a measure of your fame. Consider a circle that includes most of the people in the world. Worldwide fame belongs to a select few: Tiger Woods, Pamela Anderson, Mohammed Ali, Eric Clapton, Hillary Clinton, etc. When a world-famous person goes somewhere, they’re not just another face in the crowd. In order to become someone famous, then, you must somehow be presented frequently to many, many people. Sports figures become famous when they achieve at the highest professional levels in their chosen sport - those performances are broadcast and their faces become familiar in the process. Movie (or TV) actors have to appear in box office successes (or popular, long-running programs). Musicians have to sell a lot of record albums and have huge concert audiences. Artists have to have their “big break” whereby someone gives them exhibitions that can attract a large crowd of wealthy buyers. "Beautiful people" without a lot of any specific talent other than their looks need to appear often on television and in the tabloids. And so on. What they all have in common with regard to becoming famous is that someone has to decide they’re going to become important enough to justify putting their face and their work (if any!) out there on some public medium for people to see. Time on TV costs big money, and advertisers need to be convinced that a public figure will attract viewers who are potential customers for the products of the advertisers. Movies are expensive to produce and producers need to have some confidence that the expensive presence of an actor will result in box-office success. Sports owners will pay big salaries to a star athlete in hopes of seeing fans packed into the sporting venues and buying the team paraphenalia. And so on.

For the most part, a person seeking fame must know someone or have an "in" for that to happen. You need someone to champion your cause, to extol your virtues to someone who's in a position to give you an opportunity. Agents are ubiquitous in sports and in other entertainment activities - agents can help talented people get the chance to show what they can do - and then take a piece of the action as their reward for the success of their clients. If an agent is famous (and rich), it's because they've managed to achieve a stable of famous (and rich) clients. Being famous as an agent is a case of one type of fame feeding off another (a parasite?). I don't know any scientists who have an agent, although such might exist..

Up until recently, TV was the unrivalled medium by which fame was determined. Now, the Internet is growing as a rival medium for fame-seekers, but it continues to lag behind TV. Being seen on TV still is a sort of "validation" for those who wish to become famous. If you're on TV, this is an indication that your fame has grown to reach some threshold. If you're on local TV, that's not as important as being on national TV, which in turn is less significant than being on TV around the world. Being seen on specialty programs (e.g., a science documentary on an educational channel) is much less significant than being seen on some very popular program (e.g., some late night talk show). There's a hierarchy of such programs for the purpose of achieving fame, associated with size of the program's viewing audience.

Of course, it's well known that many talented people never get their chance to become famous, for one reason or another, and not every famous figure is all that much more talented that someone who, for whatever reason, never got a break. Fame is notoriously unfair. Fame as a goal can drive you mad because it's not necessarily associated with your abilities. Of course, you may have an unrealistic opinion of your own abilities relative to others - that's a different story.


The pyramid of fame

For musicians, artists, actors, politicians, playwrights, photographers, sculptors, sport players, etc., the road to fame is heavily populated. There's only room at the top in these careers for but a small number of stars - really rich (monetary) rewards are only for the fortunate few. The middle of the pyramid includes a somewhat larger group of those who can make a decent living but are not very famous, while the bottom of the pyramid includes an even larger group of those who can't make a decent living at their chosen profession and must have a second job, or some sort of other financial prop because they have only limited fame within their profession. For the entertainment business, fame is the key to fortune, but it's a cruel path because the competition for those top positions is brutal. Numerous pitfalls lurk to snare the unfortunates seeking that fame and its rewards. Many people seek that fame, but only a tiny, tiny fraction of them ever make it to the top.

I suppose science has its own such pyramids, but - it seems far less an issue in science. Most scientists are recognized only within their specific disciplines. It's really unusual for scientific "fame" to go outside of a particular subdiscipline. Hence, the significance of one's place in a pyramid is of diminished meaning, as are the tangible benefits associated with that fame. For many scientists, the biggest benefit associated with being recognized within professional circles is the chance to do more interesting science and the prospect that colleagues would respect your work and be interested in your opinions as a result. The personal monetary rewards are minimal (outside of the Nobel prizes). TV audiences aren't particularly interested in science topics, so scientific "fame" typically remains confined.

I was able to find a niche that was relatively sparsely populated (and it still is). My little touch of fame is there mostly because I didn't have a lot of competition. When very few people are doing what you're doing, it's a lot easier to stand out from the small crowd. I didn't have to leapfrog over a lot of competitors desperately seeking a spot at the apex of the pyramid to be considered successful - that pyramid I chose to be part of was small and continues to be. I'm quite content with that. I certainly have endeavored to be a good scientist, contributing to the profession in a meaningful way, but I never pursued excellence for any fame I might acquire. Being at the top of my small scientific pyramid was never my goal. I simply wanted to be good at what I do.


The importance of fame

For entertainers, fame is inevitably involved in a climb to the top of their profession. Entertainers can't rise to the top without becoming famous, and vice-versa. But fame isn't necessarily associated with every possible career choice. Even if you make it to some sort of "top" of science - I observe that in science, we don’t really have any sort of systematic way to decide just when you’ve reached the top of the profession - such an issue is simply irrelevant. There's no ranking system because none is needed. Since science rejects argument by authority and everything of substance has to pass through peer review, there's nothing particularly special about being at the top that would be of value to your work as a scientist. As mentioned earlier, someone with fame in some science can hope that it carries with it some respect for their contributions to the science. In fact, the more famous you are in science, it usually means you have less time to do the work you love the most. A famous scientists finds that his/her time is constantly being used to do things that take them away from their work. In entertainment, on the other hand, fame and fortune typically leads to being allowed even more time to do what you want to do.

Arlo Guthrie (son of the famous folk musician Woody Guthrie and famous in his own right as a folk musician) once said,

Famous people are not always important, and important people are not always famous!

This quote really struck me when I first heard it. I could see the truth of it and as time has gone by since then, its validity is revealed more every day. As I've written elsewhere, I've concluded that most human beings have a need to establish meaning to their life. Although this essay isn't the place to discuss the topic, I believe that everyone’s life has meaning and, therefore, importance, even if your life is brief and completely unknown to anyone other than your immediate family. In my view, every person is important, and fame (as Arlo Guthrie has so clearly enunciated) is a poor measure of importance. Many people are unaware of their importance because they equate that with fame, unfortunately. This misunderstanding has led to much pain and suffering through the ages.

One path to fame and importance is to become associated with some cause, of course. But the cause may not be worth the price its followers are willing to extract in human misery - leaders of causes such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama Bin Laden have become infamous (and historically important) for their deeds committed ostensibly in the name of some cause. It’s evident through the lens of history that such evil people mostly have been self-absorbed narcissists, promoting themselves more than any cause (a so-called cult of personality) and willing to do almost anything to put themselves on a pedestal and stay there as long as possible. Their fanatic followers are willing to perpetrate terrible crimes in the name of the cause (and of the leader). I would pity such people were it not for their terrible acts of cruelty. Infamous people are famous, but in a wholly negative way.


Recognition and fame

I've pondered also the issue of recognition for a person’s contributions in science. I think the ideas I’ve had about recognition in science apply to more than just science, however. If you did something, whatever its nature, did you do it for recognition, or did you do it for the sheer love of doing it? If you did it for recognition, you may or may not manage to receive the recognition you seek. My suggestion is that if recognition was your only goal, then it probably wasn't worth doing. Seeking recognition is nothing more than seeking fame, which is likely to wind up with you being unsatisfied. If you did something for the love of doing it, then the act itself should be enough reward for you. Whatever recognition you might or might not receive is out of your hands. Does a lack of recognition mean your work was without meaning or importance? If you think recognition is the measure of your work's value, I believe you're confused, and likely to be dissatisfied with your career.

If you've done something with your career that represents a "body of work" in which you can say you did your best and it represents something meaningful for you, then it doesn't matter whether you have a roomful of awards for that work, or no ceremonial recognition at all. If you have the respect of your peers for what you've done, it may or may not take the form of some sort of tangible recognition - an award of some sort. Receiving such an award is nice, because it indicates that someone among your peers respected your work enough to nominate you for that award. Should you receive some formal recognition, accept your award, be grateful for the fact that your work is appreciated by someone, and move on. Don't give in to the illusion that receiving the award is of particular significance and believe that the award somehow has validated the work that you did to receive it. If the work was excellent (or of no value whatsoever), getting an award for it (or not) doesn’t change the meaning and value of that work.