Hero worship

Humans, all of us, really seem to value heroes.

These are the folks who seem to snatch opportunity out of disaster. They must capture imagination and emotions and must appear super-human in some way. They must have displayed unimaginable courage in the face of insurmountable fear; impossibly augmented physical, emotional and even metaphysical strength in averting danger or destruction. Reordering the physical nature of things in some unimaginable way will suffice.

If they don’t personally survive, so much the better!

I have often wondered if these heroes sought out these opportunities. For example, did they always have visions of walking across a stage to thunderous applause? Was that image of adulation what motivated them to get out of bed and come to work every day? Is it pure happenstance that the right person met the right challenge at the right time and, with blind luck, survived?

In science, we recently celebrated the awarding of Nobel Prizes. On Oct. 10, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was bestowed jointly to James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof for “their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.”

In every case, as I have observed, the Nobel Prize selection process has focused on an achievement that ties together related mechanisms with a unifying discovery. The discovery solves a broad number of questions.

It has made me think about the way that these scientific “heroes” came to be. Did someone tell them to pursue a Nobel Prize? Was that their dream all through their career? What about those who asked the important questions even though they were not the first to find the answers? How important are these people and how should they be recognized?

I often wonder if we spend more time worshiping heroes and less time nurturing all those who essentially contribute to the process of creation of those heroes.

In commentary related to another awesome discovery – the Higgs boson – I read the following by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology:

“Science has always been an intensely collaborative pursuit, and prizes to individuals are rarely able to capture the full nuance of the historical reality. In the modern era, when communication between scientists anywhere on earth is instantaneous and effortless, collaborations are growing larger and more central to the scientific enterprise.

“…in the future the prize committee should be allowed to consider institutions and collaborations as well as individuals. Doing so would not only give recognition to the many people who deserve credit for discoveries like the Higgs, but it would also reflect to the world the nature of modern scientific investigation.”

In no way were these statements made to diminish the enormous contribution of the prizewinners, but there is obvious truth to the fact that we all do not work in a vacuum.

How much credit can we bestow on those who work to avoid catastrophes versus running to the rescue? What value do we offer those who through the educational process instill the value of personal discipline and rigor in the art and science of discovery?

Who are our unsung heroes right here on the banks of the mighty Tar? Let me know.



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