The Nobel Prize in Chemistry went out today. You probably don’t care. Maybe if you're Jewish, since one of the winners hails from Israel (and a woman, to boot), but most folks aren’t going to know the award was even given out unless Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert happens to bring it up later tonight.
I think the last time the Chemistry Nobel made big news was back in 1995, when it was given to the guys that figured out that CFCs were causing ozone depletion. For those too young to remember, before global warming, the loss of the ozone layer was the environmental disaster that humankind brought upon the Earth, destined to wipe out all life on the planet. Before that it was nuclear power and before that, Richard Nixon. So far global warming’s only managed to get a Nobel Peace prize, the Golden Globe on the Nobels, so excuse me if I haven’t run out and bought a Prius just yet.
But I digress (and digest – I’m eating dinner as I write this; wakka wakka!)….
To be honest, I don’t really get that jazzed about the Chemistry Nobel and I have a Ph.D. in the field. For the last few years, the award has mainly gone to biochemists, which isn’t close to what I studied in grad school (for the curious, it was inorganic chemistry, the Daytime Emmy of chemistry). Plus, I haven’t done any real research since 2000, which for those too young to remember, was the other year that was supposed to bring about the end of civilization (so pardon me for not having faith in a 5000 year old Mayan calendar).
If you ask me (and you won't), there are two reasons why no one cares about science Nobels or cares about science in general, for that matter. First, science doesn’t “wow” us the way it used to. It’s the 21st century and we’re just used to science doing really cool things. What’s the last thing to really amaze people? No, not the Sham-Wow. Something that actually works (the word sham is in the name, for Christ’s sake!). Really, what was the last device or breakthrough you heard about that made your jaw drop or make you yell, “Holy sh*t how the f**k did they do that?” The last time I can remember was during the first Gulf War (remember, that other time a Bush took us to Iraq, right before a slick, charming democrat won by a landslide, but still had trouble reforming health care – you seeing the trend, yet, people?). People were amazed at new weapons like the Patriot missile, which apparently could be aimed and launched with the same precision normally required to win one of those free throw games at the state fair.
But these days, the marvels of science have become as routine as the “n-word” in rap music and the retirement of Brett Farve. It used to be a big deal, but now we’re just desensitized to the whole thing. Think about it, a GPS unit, a device the size of your hand that can not only tell you exactly where you are on the planet, but can tell you how to get to any place in the country you might want to go. You should have crapped your pants the first time you heard about such a device, but you probably just raised your eyebrows, stuck out your chin a little, gave a small nod and said, “Mm, neat.” That's what science has been reduced to. Mm, neat.
The second thing, which probably goes hand-in-hand with the first, is that there are no more heroes in science, someone to inspire kids and make them want to learn about the field. No, teachers don’t count. I’m talking a hero on a national scale. Simply put, we need another Einstein. He was the first, maybe the only, pop star of science. He was the Peter Frampton of physicists. He had one good year, lived off it for the rest of his life and spent his final years a cranky old man arguing with other physicists on whether or not God played with dice. The guy's been dead for over fifty years and he’s still the most popular scientist around. Think of everything people have accomplished since 1955: Moon missions, Mars missions, contact lenses, microwave ovens, Shrinky Dinks (ask your parents), the internet, the frappuccino. You have no idea who’s responsible for any of that stuff, do you? Heck, Intel recently joked about it in one of their commercials. The only other scientist to come close to his popularity since his death is Bill freakin’ Nye (the freakin’ Science Guy) and his fifteen minutes ended quite a while ago.
Even our fake role models aren’t scientists anymore. Fun fact: one of the people that inspired me to become a chemist (besides my junior high science teacher – again, I’m not talking about them) was Peter Parker. That’s right, Spider-man. He was a science nerd that used his smarts to defeat bad guys. Remember, kids, in the comics his web shooting isn’t organic. He actually used his home chemistry set to make an adhesive that makes epoxy look like wet toilet paper. As a twelve year old, I found that to be pretty cool. Today, if anyone in the movies, comics or video games are scientists it’s secondary to everything else going on. The closest ones I can think of are the forensics people on crime dramas, like that cute goth chick from NCIS, but they’re not the stars of the show. That would be the studly, middle aged white guy that struts around and barks orders to everyone until they finally arrest or, in most cases, shoot the wrong-doer, just before the last commercial break. Video gamers may try to bring up Gordon Freeman, but when you’re swinging crowbars at headcrabs no one’s thinking, “Boy, this makes me want to learn science!”
Maybe all of this is a good thing. Maybe science (like teaching) shouldn’t be a glamorous job that attracts people who are only in it for money and poon-tang. I don’t want chemists, biologists and physicist to be put in the same light as doctors, lawyers and NASCAR drivers. People should be scientists (and teachers) because they’re truly interested in improving the world and bettering humankind, even if it doesn't end up bringing them fame and/or fortune.
That being said, as a scientist (and a teacher), I could really use more money and poon-tang in my life right now. What, do you actually think I’d be spewing all this crap if I had something better to do on a Wednesday night? I’m bored, people! It's still another six days until Uncharted 2!