Monday, October 14, 2013

Curiosity vs celebrity: why do some reject fame?


I've a piece with the ABC today, 'Curiosity vs celebrity: why do some reject fame?'

Prompted by Nobel laureate Peter Higgs' post-prize holiday, I'm explaining why many scholars choose research over fame.  A sample:
Yes, scholars can also be driven by envy, contempt and egotism – for some, the grants are greener on the other side. But unless these drives are uncoupled from love of truth, the pettier impulses can be quite fruitful: they encourage intellectual criticism, ambition, risk-taking. 
In other words, basic research can be an invitation for a whole community – including amateurs – to develop their curiosity, however tinged with ressentiment
This is also why scholarship needs great communicators, like Paul Davies or Carl Sagan, to name two formative favourites from my teenage years: their prose and stories help others to develop their palate for truth. 
And more vaguely, but perhaps most strikingly, intellectual curiosity exemplifies humanity. 
We are, as far as we know, the only species who can speculate on the nature of reality. We have a gift for precise, systematic thinking, which combines deft calculation with bold imagination. 
This is not what we are for, but it does seem a waste to devote the only known higher intellect in the cosmos solely to brute necessity or restless distraction – or the combination of the two: celebrity.
By the way, I've used 'CERN' (the organisation) in place of the LHC (the particle collider) -- a metonym. They're not the same thing.

(Illustration: painting of Peter Higgs by Ken Currie. Currie was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh to paint the portrait, which was unveiled in 2009.)

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