A Tale of Two Idols

By Basab Dasgupta

My grandson asked me one day if he should idolize Stephen Hawking or Jeff Bezos. One might think that it has to be Hawking because the man spent his entire life with the noble purpose of understanding how the universe functions while Bezos is merely engaged in the selfish materialistic goal of enriching himself!

The situation is not so black and white in my opinion. Let us follow the activities of two people: Hawking is a theoretical physicist (TP) and Bezos is a billionaire business tycoon (BB).

They share, at least, two common traits: they are both creative and driven people without much concern for others. In addition, they both believe that someday their efforts would lead to great benefits for society. A TP believes that his work would someday explain how the universe was created, thus resolving one of the mysteries puzzling the scientists for centuries. A BB might intend to donate a significant portion of his assets to charitable causes a la Bill Gates or run for political office.

Of course, the egos manifest differently. A TP would love to talk about his dozens of published papers in distinguished technical journals, make brilliant presentations at international scientific conferences, be invited to be a member of committees which decide government policies for the advancement of science, write books documenting his thoughts, and so on. It is an intellectual satisfaction: a realization that he has fully utilized his intelligence in pursuit of the expansion of human knowledge.  He sees himself as special and different from the billions of other people on this earth.

A BB on the other hand simply shows off all his material assets and the associated power these assets enable him to harness in social and political circles. He would love to see photos of his mansion, cars, and planes on the cover of popular magazines, not to mention his life story. He would relish the attention of politicians lobbying him for donations. He would enjoy giving speeches at the gatherings of investment bankers and serving as a board member of different companies. He would be happy to be interviewed on live television about his business success. It is a satisfaction at a more primal level.

The creativity of the theoretical physicist is easy to appreciate. The creativity of the businessman is less obvious and less appreciated. But the fact is that one also has to be creative in building one’s wealth.

In a fundamental sense, the application of this creativity is no different from that of the physicist. One has to first thoroughly understand the existing principles and their limitations. Then one has to start thinking of approaching business practices and strategies in an unusual way – the so-called “thinking out of the box”.

Traditionally, a TP is viewed with awe and respect by everyone whether they understand his work or not, but a BB may not be regarded with similar respect. However, just like the wide gap existing between the “haves” and the “have nots” in their financial worth, there is a huge separation of knowledge between the haves and have nots of knowledge.

I would like to argue that there is a similarity between the two scenarios. If we think about how a TP got to be who he/she is, it all started at high school and then followed by college, university, and finally, the path went through some high-level academic jobs. We believe that he got an A because he was smart. He could learn things faster, remember them, and could always come up with a solution to a problem one way or another. Others could not compete with him and ended up with B, C, or D.

This is precisely what happens in the financial and business world. The guy who gets rich learns the tricks of the business quickly, can remember to apply them appropriately, and can come up with new schemes to make money. The fact is that money is there to be made for everyone but others are just not competent enough to harness it, just like there is knowledge to be acquired for everyone!

Now let us follow both of our candidates through their professional lives. The businessman gradually develops a circle of similar-minded friends and associates at high positions in various companies and governments. These friends then pave the way for him to increase his visibility and reputation and hence enhance his wealth. For example, by inviting him to serve as a board member in a company or hiring him with a significant promotion.

Exactly the same thing happens to the TP. If he goes to a good Ivy League school then he automatically builds a peer group who knows and respects his work. Typically, all the important government agencies which allocate funds for major research and the faculty of well-known universities consist of this very peer group.

In both cases, there is a close-knit inner circle and the world outside of it does not even understand what they do, not to mention any ability to influence their decision.

It appears that the rich are exploiting the poor because for the rich people to run their businesses there is a need for other people to work for them. These other people apply their various skills and are reimbursed accordingly. However, this is only fair and certainly cannot be called exploitation.

Once again, let us compare this situation with our TP. He can do a lot of stuff by himself, but even he needs help in his major projects in order to expand his knowledge base. This help arrives in the form of teams of graduate students, post-doctoral research fellows, laboratory technicians, and even some professional colleagues. They do various experiments, run computer programs, prepare charts and graphs and even do various analyses. They certainly do not gain as much fame as the physicist himself but no one complains that the physicist is expanding his knowledge by exploiting his underlings. On the contrary, all these helpers hope that they would learn something in the process and perhaps someday become just as wise and famous as the physicist.

I told my grandson, that whether Hawking is his idol or Bezos, there is nothing fundamentally nobler in the activities of one of them compared to those of the other. Each one is utilizing their God-given potential to the fullest and should be admired for that.

(Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.)


Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

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