A buried gem (how winning a Nobel Prize is a big deal)

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is the eleventh of my opinion columns, A buried gem, originally published November 17, 2006.

Tuesday night, I had the privilege of attending the first public talk on the campus by John C. Mather since it was announced that he had won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking experimental research into the beginning of the universe. The event was well attended by student, faculty and community members alike. Mather was treated as a hero, receiving standing ovations both before and after his talk.

I say I had the privilege of attending because there were many more people who would have liked to attend, but either because they didn’t know about it or because the hall ran out of standing room, they couldn’t. Having one of our professors win a Nobel Prize is a big deal. This is only the fourth time it’s happened. I would have expected a bit more effort to be put into it.

I cannot fault Mather, as he did a great job, giving carefully considered answers to off-the-wall questions. I also cannot fault the physics department, as it opened up its biggest lecture hall and did the best job it could trying to promote the event. But I can fault the university at large, as this monumental academic event wasn’t given the attention it deserved. No single department can handle putting together a really large event like this deserved to be. The university needs to run the show in events of this magnitude or, at the very least, provide heavy assistance.

Even with the low amount of publicity the event received, many more people showed up than there was room for. All Mather needed for his presentation was a projector. Certainly there are much larger lecture halls on campus that could have accommodated the event. The university should also have done a better job of publicizing it. I only heard of it by word of mouth from a friend who happens to be a physics major, and I’m kind of surprised at how many community members showed up seeing as how there was very little outreach to them.

Where was the press? I saw a Diamondback photographer and a photographer for the physics department’s website, and that was about it. There was no local news team, even though this would have made for a great news segment. It’s quite possible that NBC4 or some other local station could have sent out someone to cover it if they knew about it, or if it had more importance than just a talk in a medium-sized lecture hall.

This university is on the way up in the national rankings. We’re putting a strong focus on academics, and it’s really important that we emphasize our strength as a cutting-edge research institution. One of the best ways to do this is to give appropriate attention when one of our own receives the most prestigious award in science. We should make a big deal out of things such as this, not only because it is a big deal, but also because it is in the university’s best interest to receive favorable press for stunning research accomplishments.

So I hope the next time one of our professors wins a Nobel Prize, the university will put more effort into commemorating the event. The university can easily provide better promotion, more spacious accommodations and outreach to local news teams to bring media attention. Have the talk in a large forum such as the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center or even in Cole Field House if necessary. Put one-tenth of the effort into it that is put into football games. Whereas home games happen every other week, Nobel Prizes are a rarity, and their relevance to the university’s ultimate mission is much stronger.

This column was just me being wishful that people would care more about incredibly important accomplishments like winning a Nobel Prize. But alas, only the science nerds are really into it. And I have to fault the deputy opinion editor for picking a horrendously terrible title for my column. “A buried gem?” Did he spend a single second coming up with ideas, then use the first one that popped to mind? It might make some sense if the Nobel Prize-winning scientist was a geologist, but for a physicist? Dammit. I shouldn’t have been lazy and left it to the editors to pick my columns’ titles.

Comments are closed.