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« Oreskes and Conway do the end of the world | Main | Davey demands less gas »

An encounter with a nobellist

In the comments, The Leopard in the Basement posts an excerpt from Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Antifragile in which the author encounters a Nobel prizewinner:

As I was writing this book, I overheard on a British Air flight a gentleman explain to the flight attendant less than two seconds into the conversation (meant to be about whether he liked cream and sugar in his coffee) that he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine “and Physiology” in addition to being the president of a famous monarchal academy. The flight attendant did not know what the Nobel was, but was polite, so he kept repeating “the Nobel Prize” hoping that she would wake up from her ignorance. I turned around and recognized him, and the character suddenly deflated. As the saying goes, it is hardest to be a great man to one’s chambermaid. And marketing beyond conveying information is insecurity.

We accept that people who boast are boastful and turn people off.


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Reader Comments (30)

"As the saying goes, it is hardest to be a great man to one’s chambermaid. And marketing beyond conveying information is insecurity."

Watched another great Channel Four Martin Durkin Documentary few weeks back about Thatcher.
Story was when Maggie had her first Cabinet Reshuffle got rid of this old stuffy Tory Grandee call Sir Nickolas Soames.When he walked out of Downing Street they said he looked like the Lord of the Manor after being sacked by his own Parlour Maid.Great

Apr 29, 2013 at 8:47 AM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

It took Taleb and the stewardess 2 seconds to realise what a boastful idiot Nurse was. Why were the learned Fellows fooled?

Apr 29, 2013 at 8:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid S

I pay the bills around here so demand a little respect.......

Apr 29, 2013 at 8:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterDr Evil

Lewandosky rewarded in Bristol. Finally it makes sense.

Apr 29, 2013 at 8:55 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos


I think you mean Christopher Soames

Apr 29, 2013 at 8:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam

As I remember from my university days (an institution which did have a few Noble prize winners hanging around) the saying went 'once you have stood in the gents next to a noble prize winner you realise they have the same bodily functions as the rest of us', i.e. no need for extended deference.

Apr 29, 2013 at 9:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterEdwin Crockford

It's hardly surprising given that the President of the Royal Society thinks that humans emit seven times the CO2 as nature does. The opposite of clever is not stupid, so you can be not-clever and stupid, and clever and stupid. The latter abound in the upper reaches of the sceintific establishment, giving one the impression that clever and stupid clearly imbues people with a level of low cunning in order to get round the obstacles that prevent clever and not stupid people getting to the top.

Apr 29, 2013 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Was that a deliberate typo, noble for nobel?

Apr 29, 2013 at 9:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterEdwin Crockford

I think the '...chambermaid...' quote has its roots in 'No man is a hero to his own valet'. Montaigne is the oldest of several attributions.

Apr 29, 2013 at 10:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhil D

I haven't been able to verify the exact dates, but it is likely that Ed Davey and Gavin Schmidt knew each other at Jesus College, Oxford as undergraduates in the mid-1980s. Davey became president of the JCR, which is a quite high profile appointment and read PPE. Schmidt read Mathematics.

Jesus College also brought you Sir John Houghton - who started off the whole CAGW shebang in the first place. (*) And Lord (John) Krebs...member of the government's Climate Change Committee is the current principal.

For a relatively small College it has a lot to answer for..........

(*).'We have to announce disasters or nobody will listen'

Apr 29, 2013 at 10:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

Re Davey:

Sorry - wrong thread.

I'll repost where I meant to put it.

Mea maxima culpa..... :-(

Apr 29, 2013 at 10:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

We were once confronted by a pompous minor official down the local golf club with the "Do you know who I am?" line, to which my playing partner exclaimed "Hey, there's a bloke over here who doesn't know who he is!"

I have saved that one up but never had an appropriate time to use it since. It may come in useful when encounterting Mr Nurse one day.

Having read Taleb's earlier books and enjoying them I nevertheless came away with the feeling that he also was particularly impressed with his own intellect and not averse to name dropping. There's plenty of similar stuff in the Climategate emails so maybe it's an academic thing.

(Oh and shouldn't it be "excerpt" in line1?)

Apr 29, 2013 at 10:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterSimonW

It's a good anecdote, but one I'll take with a pinch of salt.

First - the airline is British Airways and its shortened name is universally 'BA', not 'Brit Airways'.

Second, BA have a very good passenger manifest system. You can be pretty sure that if they have the President of the Royal Society on board (assuming he is travelling under his real name), then the cabin staff will know about it. BA want to get the high-value 'high-prestige' travellers on their planes and see good personal service as a way to achieve this.

They will have identified him at check-in and made sure he was happy throughout his encounter. He would not have needed to tell the staff who he is...and nor would they not know what a Nobel prize is.

So I think there is a certain amount of 'artistic licence' here.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

Latimer - a friend of mine is a long standing BA stewardess and frankly I'd be surprised if she knew what a prize was let alone a nobel one!

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:03 PM | Unregistered Commenterduncan

duncan, my flight attendant friends assure me that the nature of the work is "long standing"

I agree with Latimer. If I've never encountered anyone after kindergarten capable of what Taleb has described, they either aren't out there, or i've met none worse than me. I prefer the former theory.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:10 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

Yep, it seems bad form to have a go at Nurse for this unlikely anecdote. The latest Wolfson is surely more than enough.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:45 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

I agree that it would be difficult to find anyone in the UK sentient enough to be cabin crew who didn't know that a Nobel prize is (or at least used to be!) a very impressive achievement.
Of course it's always possible that in a potentially noisy and busy environment she didn't quite catch what some ghastly pompous bore was droning on about while she was trying to do her job.

Apr 29, 2013 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered Commenterartwest

Sounds like Nurse was lucky not to [get] a lap full of 'accidental spilt' coffee .
Is there something about AGW has attaches those with massive ego's and such need for public recognition ?

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR


My significant other was a BA flight attendant...and though she has some general lacunae in her knowledge (if it isn't Irish and/or Catholic it doesn't exist and/or is useless), she not only knows what a Nobel Prize is, but was recently seen giving an FRS an 'interview without coffee'.

I think your remark is very ungenerous to the abilities of BA staff members.

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

Conversely, I love the story which Kirk Douglas (before his unfortunate stroke) used to tell against himself, which goes like this...
One day, driving in the Hollywood Hills, he came across a hitchhiker. Kirk rolled down the window to ask where he was going.
The hitchhiker started to reply: 'I'm heading for..... (mouth drops open)... DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE....?'

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:38 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

Another one along the lines of 'No man is a hero to his own valet'

I recall a radio interview with the then spouse of a transient rock star.

Interviewer: "What's it like to be married to a rock god?"

Interviewee (rather nastily): "I have to wash his underwear, so he's no god to me."

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterLevelGaze

It is quite possible that the stewardess knew what the prize was but decided that the best revenge for this boastful twit was to feign ignorance.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith L

Thanks for the correction Nick

Different name same type .They think they are born rule.Yeah right.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:25 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Latimer - I'm kidding (kind of) while being specific about my friend not anyone else. She's lovely, she looks good - but she's not on the pub quiz team.

Beyond that I have made no comment about the abilities of anyone. Nor do I intend to.

Apr 29, 2013 at 2:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterduncan

Rather than assume intelligence is the factor; consider the circumstances.

A stewardess is working the aisle.
----stewardess is mentally keeping tabs on the needs of the passengers under her control.
----there are likely several passengers who are 'challenging', (quite normal)
----If a recent event (past twenty years), any security concerns are bouncing in her brain
----stewardesses rarely get quiet moments in the aisle, consider she is tracking multiple requests/concerns,
----and this bloke, quite possibly the bloke she was warned to take special care of,
------is babbling something like nobel/noble prize; What the 'ell does that mean!,
------is he talking about his reproductive parts or mine?
------Did I hear him correctly?
------Bollocks! He's repeating himself, what the 'ell am I missing!?

Assuredly, any worker under stress, being judged by their work, serving multiple demanding customers is not going to think 'Nobel Peace Prize' when there are thousands of ordinary details she is trying to keep up with.

If the worker is relatively new and doubly worried, unlikely is not the word, darned impossible to understand someone talking about anything other than airline/airplane/destination concerns.

Story is believable, not that I have heard that exact story occur; I have heard some unbelievable slimy pulsating lies told by men in their quest to flirt/chat up a pretty lady.. The fact that I and others may have fallen into the aisles laughing sure wouldn't help.

Apr 29, 2013 at 6:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterATheoK

And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

Apr 29, 2013 at 6:43 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

Latimer. Americans often leave the "ways" out when talking about airlines. Taleb's story is credible. Here is another:

In the mid 80s, when I was a 747 copilot, aeroplanes often accumulated delays on a multi-sector flights back from Australia to the UK. We picked up a service one morning in Rome that was running about an hour late. A few minutes into the flight the CSD arrived on the flight deck with a note for the captain. The author of the note was extremely cross. He had joined the flight in Rome. He was, he said, the President of the Royal xxxxxxxxx Society, a friend of Lord King (BA's chairman) and was having lunch with the Governor of the Bank of England at midday. He was extremely cross that he had not been personally briefed about the reasons for the delay. The impression of importance was a little diminished because the chap was sitting in the middle of economy class.

The captain, a charming man, invited this important person to the flight deck and explained all the reasons for the accumulated delay without grovelling. The important person returned to his seat positively glowing.

Sadly the weather forecast was not as it might have been. When the important person was supposed to be lunching with the Governor of the Bank of England, he was sitting in a 747 on the Tarmac at Prestwick in Scotland waiting for the fog to clear at Heathrow.

Apr 29, 2013 at 6:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Post

Apr 29, 2013 at 1:38 PM | sherlock1

I heard a great story about one of Kirk Douglas's less successful sons. He was working as a comedian, and, not being terribly good, was being heckled by the audience. He apparently stopped his routine and rather pompously informed them that he was Kirk Douglas's son, whereupon someone at the back stood up and called out 'No, I'm Kirk Douglas's son', a refrain that was picked up by the rest of the audience. I like to think it's true.

Apr 29, 2013 at 11:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterA Lovell

Had it been one of our Southwest Airlines flights, the response would more likely have been "Nobel? Dynamite."

May 1, 2013 at 2:41 AM | Registered Commenterjferguson

Another excerpt from Antifragile:

The fragilista falls for the Soviet-Harvard delusion, the (unscientific) overestimation of the reach of scientific knowledge. Because of such delusion, he is what is called a naive rationalist, a rationalizer, or sometimes just a rationalist, in the sense that he believes that the reasons behind things are automatically accessible to him. And let us not confuse rationalizing with rational—the two are almost always exact opposites. Outside of physics, and generally in complex domains, the reasons behind things have had a tendency to make themselves less obvious to us, and even less to the fragilista. This property of natural things not to advertise themselves in a user’s manual is, alas, not much of a hindrance: some fragilistas will get together to write the user’s manual themselves, thanks to their definition of “science.”
So thanks to the fragilista, modern culture has been increasingly building blindness to the mysterious, the impenetrable, what Nietzsche called the Dionysian, in life.
Or to translate Nietzsche into the less poetic but no less insightful Brooklyn vernacular, this is what our character Fat Tony calls a “sucker game.”
In short, the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.


I think this describes global warming alarmist scientists and bureaucrats exactly.

May 2, 2013 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn P.

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