The Sweet Science

It has been theorized that part of the appeal of boxing is grounded in the homoerotic tension that seems to underly so many hypermasculine behaviors: Two hypervirile men enter the ring and pound on each other until one of them literally cannot continue. Then, if it's been a good fight (i.e. if Tyson wasn't involved), they hug each other and cry like sobbing sisters. That's the real pay-off, getting to show their soft sides and have them appreciated by the world without having to seem like a pair of sissies. All that's required is that they nearly beat each other to death first.

Science has an analogous process. From the very beginnings of scientific education, the objective nature of the discipline--the non-self-ness--is emphasized to all students. The style of written science (the passive voice) is deliberately chosen to eliminate personhood, and is often explained with words to the effect of, "we don't care WHO made the measurement, just that it was made and was such-and-so." For this reason, scientists can be notoriously bad at giving credit where credit is due. It's not that they're all glory-grabbing assholes who want to steal others' work; just that they've spent their adult lives steeped in a culture that doesn't care who made the measurement, only that it was made and that it was such-and-so.

But sometimes, after a long and illustrious career that includes the luck and determination to be associated with a major discovery, an individual scientist achieves the crowning glory of a Nobel prize. At this point--and the culture of science is very clear about this--he or she is suddenly allowed to be a human being again. I have before me a commemorative article in Chemical & Engineering news ("C&E," as it's known in the trades), published as a cover story on the occassion of the one-year anniversary of Nobel laureate Richard Smalley's death. Pp. 14-15 include a gray topbar spread cleverly titled "HUMAN ELEMENT" which, without excusing itself, describes Richard Smalley the person, in emotional terms. Because he spent his life negating his personhood through science, on the occasion of his apotheosis and death it is appropriate that his personhood be emphasized. This is the rational scientist community's chance to revel in the emotions that we spend most of the rest of our time trying to supress, eliminate, and control for.

Maybe science is for man-vs-world what boxing is for man-vs-man; a kind of ultimate theatre of conflict. As in any conflict, premiums are placed on strength, willpower, and determination--on denial of the "baser" urges that lead us to sleep until noon and massage our data and and give up if the math gets too hard. It's as if we acknowledge the certain pathological quality that one needs to achieve greatness as a scientist. We recognize it and acknowledge that it must have great personal costs, but because it is of such great value to society it is nonetheless condoned and encouraged in the young.

No comments: