Friday, October 19, 2012

Why the Rich Are Not Like the Rest of Us: Professor Yamanaka and His Whacked-Out Washing Machine

You’re a 50 year old tenured professor pulling down upside of 10 million yen (roughly equal to 130 K US dollars) per year plus full health and pension benefits, a scientist who likes to work with his hands. In fact, you liked it so much that you initially set out to become a surgeon but gave up because you were too clumsy and patients would emerge from their anesthesia before you had finished.* So there you are, satisfying your itch for tinkering with something bigger, more tactile than the stem cells that you’re generating in a biological version of alchemy by working on your broken-down washing machine,… when the Swedes drop a Nobel Prize on you and all hell breaks loose. Specifically, MEXT Minister Makiko Tanaka, the heiress to the Kakuei Tanaka fortune, decides that Professor Yamanaka deserves better and begins soliciting donations from her fellow cabinet members to buy you a new washing machine.

Now, it appears that Mrs. Tanaka’s father never taught her the Second Rule of Feeding and Handling a Guy in Captivity, which is: never mess with him your guy when he’s trying to repair the family washing machine. No, you wait until he’s totally F’ed it up and the washing machine is little more than a scrap heap on your basement floor, which is when you gently suggest that maybe, just maybe, when he’s pulling down upside of 10 million yen per year, he can spring for a new washing machine?

Professor Shinya Yamanaka, of course, is too nice to suggest where the cabinet members who are taking away his pastime can stick that contraption where an automatic dryer will come in handy. No, and he knows that they mean well. And it probably helps that they’re forking over the cash, all 160,000 yen of it, instead of having shipping the real thing to Professor Yamanaka’s residence. Still, it’s a little depressing to think that the Noda cabinet apparently believes that Professor Yamanaka is either too poor or too cheap to buy a new washing machine for his spouse (assuming that he isn’t single and doesn’t do the laundry himself).

At least they could have asked first.

* This has the feel of an urban legend and Professor Yamanaka seems just the type of person who would make up that kind of story about himself. But let’s play along anyway, because it’s too good not to be true.


Jan Moren said...

Spot on, I think. I know a lot of academics that deliberately do stuff like this just for the fun of doing something with their hands and body now and again, not just use their mind.

A friend spent half his free time keeping his ancient Saab up and running, when he could have simply bought a brand new car whenever he wanted. Several people at my department practised judo, and one (a mild-mannered, small-bodied female theoretical philosopher) was an avid kick-boxer.

Playing an instrument is very common, as is juggling. Among famous researchers, off the top of my mind Richard Feynman played the bongo drums; Claude Shannon was a juggler and unicycler.

Jun Okumura said...

And you haven't even mentioned the countless number of gifted painter- and musician-physicists, who make me wonder if there isn't a deep, structural connection between aesthetics and logic.