How come scientists are famous in Asia, and we get Kevin Federline?

sciceleb.jpg Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Tom Waits isn’t the only one. Heisuke Hironaka, Fields Medal-winner for some of the most difficult mathematical proofs of all time, has appeared in advertisements and on billboards in his native country. Leo Esaki is still popular, more than 30 years after he won the Nobel Prize in physics; he didn’t even have time for a brief interview with Nature because of a packed social calendar.

David Howell, chair of the East Asian Studies Department at Princeton University, explains that in Asia, “There is a perceived connection between scientific achievement—measured above all by the receipt of Nobel Prizes—and a nation’s stature in the world.” Nobel Prizes are a metric on par with GDP, Howell says, as a yardstick of progress.

Asians fawn over what the scientists wear and eat (like American movie stars, they often get comped), as well as their private lives—their wives are hounded for gossip on how their husbands are with the housekeeping.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Chen Ning Yang, 82, married a 28-year-old grad student and caused more of a stir in his native China than Donald Trump did when he wed Melania. As NASA and the Russian space programs falter, the Chinese can’t stop lauding their taikonauts, who orbited the Earth last year, with elaborate ceremonies, myriad titles and trips to the Hong Kong Disneyland.

In Korea, the well-documented fame of Hwang Woo-suk sent the nation into a fit of apoplexy when his fraud was revealed. Across the Sea of Japan, Koichi Tanaka won the Nobel for chemistry in 2002, and the media frenzy was enough to supplant the news of North Korea’s having abducted several Japanese citizens. Tanaka made the rounds on all the talk shows, found himself getting mobbed by housewives and graced legions of magazine covers. In an interview with Nature, he described the celebrity treatment plainly: “Nobel winners are celebrated like sports stars.”
While a great part of all the fervor is pure nationalist sentiment, another is simply besting the West. Robert Sinclair,  chair of materials science and engineering and member of the US-Asia Technology Management Center at Stanford University, says, “It’s the recognition that the Asian person is regarded as better than Westerners for particularly Western pursuits, which is most appreciated.” 

In 2001, the Japanese government drafted a state policy that focused on winning 30 Nobel Prizes in 50 years. If the results of a 2002 poll are any indication, it might work: Japanese boys aspire to be research professors more than to be baseball stars, a level of academic aspiration not seen in the West since the space race. Science celebrity has moved East, building a culture that treats Nobels like Oscars and new discoveries like home-run records.

Originally published May 18, 2006

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