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Thanks to the media, Nobel Laureates are underrated, undervalued, and simply uncool.
Every time I go to the supermarket these days, I'm reminded that we're entering the fall–winter holiday season. Judging from the displays, the season starts with Halloween—for most people. But not for me. My favorite fall holiday started earlier this week with Columbus Day. And with all due respect to Christopher Columbus, my enthusiasm has nothing to do with his voyages to the New World.
Rather, it's the day that the Nobel Foundation starts announcing the year's winners of the Nobel Prize, beginning with the biology prize (they like to call it the prize for physiology or medicine). I wait all year for that announcement the way other people wait for the finale of "The Bachelor," or "Survivor." But unlike the winners of those contests, the "contestants" in the Nobel showdown devote their entire lives to their prize-winning endeavors and for the most part, do so without looking for any prize at the end. Also in contrast to the winners of those other contests, Nobel Laureates are rarely interviewed on the news, the morning shows, or on talk shows—even though I think we could convincingly argue that their achievements are generally more impressive than, say, getting the final rose. Or aren't they?
I find myself wondering about this every single year during Nobel Prize Week. Each fall, I hope that the winners will be in the media, describing their prize-winning work and its applications, and every year I'm disappointed. My expectations are so diminished that I'm grateful when a newscaster mentions the prize at all. They frequently mention the winning scientist's nationality. Sometimes they even mention their name(s), or offer a phrase describing the prize-winning work, but they never, ever interview the person. And I can't understand that.
Young scientists fare a little better. On a few occasions, I have seen high-school students interviewed for winning prestigious contests such as the Intel Science Talent Search (formerly the Westinghouse Science Talent Search). The interviews, however, are less than satisfying. In almost every case, the young scientist is questioned by a giddy journalist, who, more than anything, seems to want to know whether the interviewee is "still a regular kid." The conclusion we're to draw, I guess, is that having scientific talent is irregular. Or, to put it another way, "uncool."
Here we come to a circular problem, the Catch-22 of "coolness," which is achieved in large part by appearing on television. But if you're considered uncool, there's no chance you'll appear on TV in the first place. Many people have become famous and admired for merely appearing on TV (or worse, for having their mugshot appear on TV). So, by the same reasoning, wouldn't scientists become more accessible, more valued, and more cool by appearing on TV once in a while? And then we have to ask, what would it take to make winning the Nobel Prize seem cool enough to merit an appearance on TV in order to convey to the public just how cool it is to win a Nobel Prize?
My concern is not to garner publicity for scientists per se. Nor do I want to emphasize the Prize-winning over the work that won the prize. Rather, I'm concerned about our values as a nation. By promoting the images of success and fame that we do, we reflect the current values and shape the values of the future. So, if kids see people who become more famous for leaving rehab than for curing a disease, what do you think they'll be motivated to do?
Will kids think about studying the sciences or go into science if they're not presented images of a culture celebrating scientific achievement? And will adults be interested in funding scientific research without having some exposure to the work their tax money is funding?
If anyone out there reading this books interviews for TV news or talk shows, please, make my Nobel Prize Week a really good one next year. Book a Nobel Laureate for your show.
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