Monday, February 4, 2013

Richard III Finally Wins

Skeletal remains found under a parking lot in the British city of Leicester have apparently been confirmed to be those of King Richard III, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Most who have any association at all with the expression "Richard III" will think of Shakespeare's play and the lines "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York." Or "My kingdom for a horse!" My favorite has always been Richard's response to Lady Anne:
Lady Anne
... No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. 
Gloucester (Richard)
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
Charlotte Higgins, writing in the UK's Guardian newspaper, raises some doubts about the science and a far more important point about popular science.

Skepticism regarding the validity of the claim that the remains are indeed those of Richard III has nothing at all to do with the more important, genuine issue of what discoveries like this have to do with broader scientific efforts.

I couldn't help noticing that the de facto spokesperson among the scientists on this project just happens to be the most attractive female, Jo Appleby. This is a symptom of a poisonous trend in the sciences — that to be worthy of public support, they must be popular and 'relevant'. The New York Times and the BBC both have pet, pretty scientists who write or host pieces from time to time. What a coincidence that they are so photogenic. Stephen Hawking is also a creature of this phenomenon. How good a scientist he is has less to do with his popularity than the freak-show factor, which brings an audience.

The standard for science today is the American Standard. It must have the potential to drum up millions in funding. We expect private corporations to lust after money and nothing more (though once upon a time, many leading firms had great pure research arms, like Bell Labs decades ago).

The same standard is applied to the arts and more or less every other human effort where once non-profit meant non-profit. Thus we see the absurd success of (con-)artists like Damien Hirst. Or Marc Quinn's gold (22 pounds of gold) statue of Kate Moss first shown at the British Museum. Important museum shows take a back seat to yet another round of Impressionists who will pull in hordes of ticket buyers. University presses like Oxford's or Harvard's, once specializing in books that might no more than five thousand readers, increasingly demand that a book be able to sell at least tens of thousands of copies to be 'worth' publishing.

Everything must be 'monetized' because contemporary culture values money above all things, even money as the only thing.