Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fame versus Impact

Just a quick post, and kind of a somber one. Hopefully, it will have a bit of impact as the new academic year approaches, and get educators like myself thinking.

Imagine a classroom of 100 freshmen students.  Some eager, some nervous, some world-weary and cynical, and some half-asleep.  In other words, a slice of the college age, university attending, population.

Ask them if they know the name "Norman Borlaug."

Then ask them if they know the name "Kim Kardashian."

I think you can tell where I am going with this post. You haven't done it yet as I have, yet you can---each and every one of you---predict the responses. 

Kim Kardashian is an inexplicably well-known media celebrity. Come to think of it, she first reached the public eye in a somewhat tacky fashion (though she is far from the only celebrity to use that route to notoriety).  She grabbed at her fame and has monetized it heavily, leveraging a career of sorts.  Can you blame her?  It's all about getting noticed.

By the way, feel free to insert the name of any male celebrity if you wish.

But Norman Borlaug is a name everyone should know.  I don't want to go over his accomplishments.  What I want is anyone reading this post who doesn't know about Borlaug's life and work to read the first link I posted.  Then watch Penn and Teller talk about Borlaug here.  Read this.  Then go on to read this.  Or even watch the whole documentary on Borlaug here

I don't know many people who spearheaded efforts to save a billion human beings from starvation, successfully.

But he didn't get his own reality show, did he?

Perhaps you want something more media-savvy and hip about Norman Borlaug.  How about this?

Isn't that a fantastic way to publicize what Borlaug did?

Did you know all that about Norman Borlaug?  The only reason I did was from debating on scarce world resources in high school, and my plant science professors at UCLA.  

Tell your friends.  And use Borlaug's great comment: 

I'm not one to sit idly by...I'm going to play that card, and play it hard.


I sent a friend of mine this "Scientist Rock Star" poster celebrating Borlaug recently.  

I recommend you order a Borlaug poster from Megan Lee, and post it in your office or lab or classroom.  Do the same with other scientists who need the PR.  For example, this is something I have posted on my office door, not that it surprises anyone.

We need to have a world where we recognize people for their accomplishments.

By the way, don't think that a Microbial Supremacist™ like me is going all plant-centric on you!  Read this American Academy of Microbiology 2013 report, titled "How Microbes Can Feed the World," available here.  The Small Masters are always in my thoughts.  And brain, apparently.

All of this discussion of media popularity versus significance reminds me of the quote by Oscar Wilde:  "I would rather be infamous than not famous at all."  That is how most of our celebrity culture works.  But should it?

We need to find ways to make things better, not "sit idly by" as Norman Borlaug put it.  And when we find it, we need to "play that card, and play it hard."

I'm with Penn Jillette in considering Norman Borlaug one of the greatest human beings in history---and saddened how few folks know his name.  Penn puts it this way, here:
"Norman is the greatest human being in history, and you probably never heard of him."
Tell a friend today about Norman Borlaug, and other real heroes, rather than what's in the National Enquirer.  Honor the people who labor anonymously to make things better for all of us.

Play that card, readers, and play it hard.


  1. I didn't know about Norman Borlaug before, and now I'm interested to find out more about him and his work. When I learn about the people behind the research and what fuels their passion for a particular topic, it makes me want to learn more about their work. Seeing why they care so much makes me care more, too.

    The Scientist Rock Star posters are also fantastic. Scientists ARE total rock stars! Maybe I can use tools like this with my Intro Bio students this fall. I think that telling the human stories behind the science is a great way to engage people and help them to connect to science in a different way.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing Dr. Borlaug's story!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Katie. Science is a human profession, and there are terrible and wonderful stories to share. I agree that students need to hear both kinds; the media does not portray scientists as well as they might. The links in my blog should give you a head start on Borlaug (including that wonderful documentary). I understand there is a new biography of Borlaug as well. As for Megan Lee's artwork, WOW. You can get many of the posters cheaply, and I post them in my office and lab; students often ask about them. Again, thank you for your kind words. Best wishes, MM


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!