Honors And Fame

I’ve mentioned a few times on here that I’m now attending Missouri University of Science and Technology, working toward getting involved in various scientific research endeavors.  I was with some of the students and they asked me about my grades this semester.  I hesitated, and then told them how I did in my classes.  I had very high scores in all my classes – near perfect.  One of them looked at me and said, “Show off.”  I found it bizarre because first of all they asked me, I didn’t ask them, and second of all, I didn’t do well in my classes to “show off” to them.  I study and learn for the pleasure of finding things out, just like Richard Feynman did.

My life can be summarized in one of his quotations,

“Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.”
– Richard Feynman

One student cornered me after a class and went on and on about how boring the lecture was and how glad he was that class was over.  I didn’t say anything, but I had personally enjoyed the lecture as it had been one of the more interesting, “above and beyond” the textbook lectures.

The times I didn’t enjoy school were when I already knew everything being taught to me, or was forced to mindlessly memorize pedantic facts which aren’t very valuable to know.   It wasn’t that I don’t enjoy the material, it was simply that it was too simple for me and I needed to be in a more difficult class, but I was not allowed to test out.  Most of the material I had studied on my own before even entering college.

It has been a long time since I’ve been in school, as I graduated back in 2001.  It’s been nearly a decade for me since I’ve been in a school environment.  Being around the younger students reminds me of those old days.  I remember back in high school my Calculus teacher kept hassling me about joining the National Honors Society (NHS).  “It will look good when you apply for to a university.”  … “Ok, ok.  I’ll join NHS.”  It was an interesting experience to say the least.

Basically to be a member of the National Honors Society at my high school meant that you came to school an hour early and sat in Mrs. Wilkerson’s room.  She would give a quick announcement and then you’d sit there for an hour, doing nothing.  I raised my hand and asked what we actually did in National Honors Society.  She told me that there’d be a day toward the end of the year when we’d go paint park benches, but as for the rest of the year, it was basically just all of us meeting in that classroom each morning for an hour.  I then replied, “So we don’t actually do anything?”  Nope, nothing of any importance.

I remember attending the first meeting and seeing one of the star students in my graduating class, who always went on and on about how she was going to Stanford.  There was another student who always talked about Harvard, Harvard, Harvard.  I attended two meetings and then decided that I’d much rather get another hour of sleep each morning than be a part of such a worthless organization.   My teachers hassled me for the next couple of weeks to attend my meetings and then eventually they gave up.  I was obviously an incorrigible, rebellious student.  Richard Feynman seemed to feel the same way about awards and honors.  He didn’t even seem to care about the Nobel Prize which he won in Physics.  It was funny to hear him relate the same exact experience from his high school days.

From what I can gather, the most intelligent people who have ever lived have never sought fame or awards, nor cared about them when they received them.   Their passion and interest in what they did is what drove them.

The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self.
– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.
– Albert Einstein

Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.
– Albert Einstein

When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends.  I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.  Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted.  Think of things in themselves.
– Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own

What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.
– Lord Byron

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.  If you try it, you will often be lonely, and sometimes frightened.  But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
– Fredrich Nietzsche

I could go on and on, quoting various authors and philosophers.   I see a common thread among all of them – be an individual and pursue things for the joy of the things in and of themselves.  They say to lose yourself in what you do.  They also stress the development of interests in this world.  To immerse yourself in this world.  To connect with it.  There’s a quotation from Bertrand Russell which I’ve always loved,

“The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”
– Bertrand Russell

I also notice that everyone wants to be the next guru, sage, or genius.  They want to be the voice that helps guide the next generation.  I also get tired of hearing about “leadership”.  Even on my first week joining the university, they kept talking about developing leadership, being the leaders of tomorrow, and so on.  I hate all that stuff.  There’s nothing wrong with following or being a normal member of an organization.  Somebody has to work the fields.

I was greatly influenced by one of my physics professors, who started talking about research pursuits that are available.  He talked about how the great geniuses in the past worked all the time on mundane experiments such as measuring the specific heats of various metals.  He talked about Rutherford and others.  Nowadays he told me that that sort of research is unpopular with students.  Everyone wants to be the next Einstein, and the smartest people no longer do the “mundane” work that needs to be done.  He went to do an experiment in his cloud chamber and used various materials to do a test.  He looked up that material’s properties in a new publication and the scientists guaranteed an error of 5%.  When my professor did his experiments he had an error of over 50% – so big that his results were hosed.  Nobody wants to do observations and grunt work which needs to be done.  Everyone seeks fame, and far less progress is happening in our society.

And when it comes to giving and helping others, one of my favorite quotations comes from Henry David Thoreau in his book Civil Disobedience,

“He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.”
– Henry David Thoreau

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.  Jesus said it best,

“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”
– Jesus Christ, Matthew 6:3

2 thoughts on “Honors And Fame”

  1. 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 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 and effort running mundane experiments designed to confirm other people’s results. His talents are much better deployed, at least most of the time, in Einsteins’ old office.

    1. 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.

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