Alan Duff: Celebrities are more famous than scientists, and we're all culturally less for it

Marlon Brandon once said of celebrity: "It's only acting. We're not that important." Photo / NZH Archive
Marlon Brandon once said of celebrity: "It's only acting. We're not that important." Photo / NZH Archive

Russian physicist turned venture capitalist billionaire Yuri Miller has, since 2012, funded nine awards for major scientific accomplishments called Breakthrough Awards. Each carries a prize of $US3 million.

To quote Mr Miller from an Economist article: "For better or for worse, we are living in an age of celebrity. Intellectual achievement gets less and less recognition in the eyes of the public."

He calls his awards the "Oscars of science." Hats off to you, sir. More and more of us are sick to death of the saturation coverage at Oscar time, and of sports and movie stars being elevated to God-like status.

Is there anything more boring than some Oscar-winning, emotionally wired actor bubbling forth about a list of people he or she is grateful to? I haven't watched this narcissistic porn show in years, and even then never for much longer than half a single winner's gushy speech.

The brilliant Hollywood marketing machine dipped one hook baited with Oscar, and a billion-plus humans took it. Yes, actors are important in most people's lives. Their skill gives humanity a mirror; a great performance on screen can be a life-changer for some. A lot of actors are multi-skilled, some extraordinarily so. Of course the best deserve our admiration.

But being gifted with a certain talent does not mean we have to bow down in homage. I'm much more admiring of a scientist who makes a ground-breaking discovery than an actor playing whatever his or her next paying role is.

Most of us love sport, so no criticism of any sportsperson here; but they're not that important in our lives. It only feels as if they are. I guess because, like actors in movies, they carry our hopes and feel like kind of mirror of who we are.

But Lebron James is not more important to humankind than any of the top hundred scientists. An actor has, first, a writer's script, then the entire film crew working to ensure his or her performance lifts to the necessary level. And if you're a movie star getting paid $20 million a movie, then you have to find and even exceed that highest level.

But, as Marlon Brando once put it: "It's only acting. We're not that important."

If the Kardashians are more famous than scientists saving millions of lives with their research and subsequent new medicines and technology, then we're all culturally less for it.

The Economist article suggests celebrity status is part of the job requirement for an actor. Not so a scientist. It's a poor argument, as "celebrity" is a concept put in our minds. It is a notion "sold" to the public by marketing people fully aware that humankind has an inate need to elevate anyone who reflects them, plays a role they identify with, or entertains exceptionally.

Actors satisfy fantasy; allow a very ordinary person to become, for just a couple hours, heroic, noble, courageous, tragic, even dead. As long as he/she got the girl/guy, revenge, the prize, or achieved the goal first. Most of all, the fantasy is complete when the actor, through his/her skills and emotional conveyance, makes Joe and Jacinta Ordinary feel admired and loved by the whole world.

Hollywood doesn't keep for long any actor who has lost the public's adoration. No. It's the Trump treatment: "You're fired." Hollywood and the media feed off this celebrity machine. The elevator that takes an actor to the penthouse suite is the same going to the basement. At least in sport many stars have a meal ticket for life.

Celebrity is so un-Kiwi. Give us the Richies and Dans and all our aw-shucks, yeah-no modest, even shy, Olympic athletes. Or hugely successful business people who shun the public spotlight. And when the last movie has been made, the last TV drama series has shocked and enthralled us in the final episode of the final season, scientists will still be searching the heavens trying to unlock the mystery of our beginnings.

We need scientists to peer, probe, test, and measure everything. Someone popping a ball into a hoop, a ball into a hole, a net, between upright goalposts, doesn't shift humanity much. Brilliant scientific minds do the heavy lifting behind the scenes. If the Kardashians are more famous than scientists saving millions of lives with their research and subsequent new medicines and technology, then we're all culturally less for it.

Happy New Year.

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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