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The ennui of the academic celebrity

In Solar, by Ian McEwan, we encounter the weary figure of Michael Beard, the nobel laureate and serial womaniser who has long lived off his early contribution to theoretical physics. By the time he approaches his 60s, he is a chaotic and directionless man, nonetheless ubiquitously affirmed within the academy and beyond:

He held an honorary university post in Geneva and did no teaching there, lent his name, his title, Professor Beard, Nobel laureate, to letterheads, to institutes, signed up to international ‘initiatives’, sat on a Royal Commission on science funding, spoke on the radio in layman’s terms about Einstein or photons or quantum mechanisms, helped out with grant applications, was a consultant editor on three scholarly journals, wrote peer reviews and references, took an interest in the gossip, the politics of science, the positioning, the special pleading, the terrifying nationalism, the tweaking of colossal sums out of ignorant ministers and bureaucrats for one more practical accelerator or rented instrument space on a new satellite, appeared at giant conventions in the US – eleven thousand physicists in one place! – listened to post-docs explain their research, gave with minimal variation the same series of lectures on the calculations underpinning the Beard-Einstein Conflation that had brought him his prize,awarded prizes and medals himself, accepted honorary degrees, and gave after-dinner speeches and eulogies for retiring or about-to-cremated colleagues. (pg. 14)

This is a man who enjoys celebrity, “in an inward, specialised world”, leaving him able to drift “from year to year, vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives” (pg. 14). He remains blissfully ignorant of the post-docs who work with him, neither having the inclination nor the energy to learn to differentiate them. He reasons that it is “better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person” rather than “insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique, or was not called Mike” (pg. 20). It was only after half a dozen trips to his research centre that he realised that the same post-doc had acted as driver each time. As he awaits the end of his fifth marriage, he relies on the incoming mail to offer him escape from the peculiar turgidity that privilege has brought to his life:

After morosely clinging to stupid hopes, he began to watch the post and emails for the invitation that would take him far away from Belsize Park and shake some independent life into his sorry frame. About half a dozen a week arrived throughout the year, but so far nothing had interested him among the inducements to give lectures on the shore of a plutocratic north-Italian lake, or in an unexciting German schloss, and he felt too weak and raw to discuss the Conflation before one more colleague-crowded conference in New Delhi or Los Angeles. He had no idea what he wanted, but he thought he would know it when he saw it. (pg. 22-23).

He often felt he had “coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be” (pg. 50). Ironically, it was this very talent and devotion which led him to become the middle man plagued by “a certain mental deficiency, an emptiness, a restless boredom” that could only be obscured “by the daily round or sleep” (pg. 49). His intellectual engagement now more often entailed flipping through the Scientific American, perpetually distracted by his “lifetime’s habit” of being “inconveniently watchful for his own name” (pg. 49).

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