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Abandoning American Science

Harold is quite a character. Even in a profession with a generous share of egotists, Harold stands out in his pure, unwavering self-centeredness. Most of the physicists I know who are attention-seeking magnets simply require a steady daily diet of respect and admiration, after which they are sated. Fat and happy with self-love, they are then as helpful and kind as a normal person. Not Harold. Oh no. Harold is a bona fide, tonight-is-the-night-we-take-over-the-world megalomaniac.

If you meet Harold, your first impression of him will be quite different. You see, he is very good at remembering to grin and emit his high-pitched, giggle-like sound meant to simulate laughter. To be fair, he is a very smart physicist and a clever debater. On matters of fact, he is usually correct. After time, however, one learns not to trust his opinions, since those are less formed by considered thought than spawned whole from his ego and cleverly defended. I know this all too well from the period when my career fell, trapped, into orbit about his sphere of influence.

For all of his acuity disguising his contempt for other people (his lessers), my last experience with him laid bare his bald egotism. This occured one month after I had had the good fortune to be offered a senior position at two institutions, one in the U.S. and one in the U.K. The entirety of my deliberations are not necessary for this story, but let me say that, although it was hard for me to decide to leave my birth country, the job in the U.K. was too attractive to turn down. The U.S. institution is one of the top 40 there, while the U.K. institution is one of the top in the world. I did not choose the premier institution for reputation alone, but because of the number of excellent students and researchers with whom I could interact.

Most people were congratulatory and genuinely happy for me. (I had been paying my dues on the postdoc circuit for some time.) Even the people at the place I turned down were gracious, while disappointed. The kindest words to me came from James, a senior professor who is very polite and friendly, but with a glint of world-domination in his eye. He stood straight in front of me, shook my hand firmly and enthusiastically, looked me in the eye and declared my appointment was "Richly deserved."

With a month gone since my decision was made and publicly known, I was eating lunch one day at a conference with 6 fellow attendees; one of them, Harold. During a lull in the lunchtime conversation, Harold cleared his throat and said, straight-faced,

"Miles, you faced an interesting decision this year. What made you decide to abandon American science?"

There. That is Harold, embodied and epitomized within that one question, his vanity laid bare at that lunch table. Could a man's ego be so massive that he expects life trajectories to bend their paths toward him? How could someone frame a life-altering decision someone else has had to make in such an irrelevant and insidious manner? It gives me great joy to have been able to chuckle at his question, first cherishing the dead silence in which my fellow diners considered his naked ugliness.


This is one of those experiences that I would really like to distill into a well-written piece. Your suggestions for improvement would be greatly appreciated.

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