Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why are Lindsay Lohan's exploits news?

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've certainly heard of the travails of Lindsay Lohan, or the earlier ones of Britney Spears. Why? Why are we talking about these people?

I think I may know, and to explain, I need to tell you a couple of stories.

When I was a young teenager, I got to train with some of the best figure skaters in the world: Olympic champions, national champions, and a lot of national competitors. (I got to be there because my younger sister was quite good, and we were a package deal.) One of the national competitors had a mom who was unbelievable, and not in a good way. She was the most extreme skating mother ever (think stage mother). She'd harangue her own daughter over every little thing, she'd scream at the other kids for getting in the way of "my Cindy", she'd even yell at the other mothers if she didn't agree with them. (Btw, her daughter grew up not to BE a national champion, but to coach one.)

After a few years of this, my mother took my sister out to LA to train with a different coach for a summer. While standing in the rink, she met a woman from Colorado, also in LA with her skating daughter. The other mother told stories about a horrible woman at a rink in Colorado -- and it turned out to be the same woman!

That amazed me, but then, this week, something else happened. I was calling references for a structural engineer to look at a building foundation. One of the references, whom I'll call Roberta, said, "before I tell you about the engineer, I have to tell you a little about myself. I went to a little school called MIT."

 At that point, my 'hey, we're similar' programming went off, and I said, "Oh, I have an engineering degree from Princeton."

She said, "Well, then, I have to tell you my Princeton story. When I went to MIT, which was in the '50's, I started off as a math major. We had a professor, a mathematician, who was really famous. And he was mostly famous for being crazy. While I was there, he left and took a job at Princeton. So we used to say that we didn't know if everyone at Princeton was crazy, or if Princeton just drove them crazy." But she didn't name the professor.

Now my programming kicked in again, so I said, "I have a crazy mathematician story, too. When I was an undergrad at Princeton, I took a lot of economics, so I knew what Cournot-Nash equilibria were. And I knew that John Nash (who would much later become the subject of the movie, "A Beautiful Mind") hung around the math building, Fine Hall. In fact, he was referred to as 'the ghost of Fine Hall' because hardly anyone ever saw him.

 "In our senior year, my brilliant physicist boyfriend began to tell me that he was having mathematical conversations with Nash. Nash would leave an equation on one of the blackboards that lined the halls. Jim would leave the next step. Then Nash would leave the next, etc.

"One late night, we were hanging out in Fine, taking a study break, when Jim whispered to me, "Wait a few seconds before you look, but that's John Nash." When I turned to see him, he looked hunted, furtive. That stuck with me, though I didn't understand it till I saw the movie 25 years later. (Btw, at the end of the movie, it shows Nash beginning to interact with students in 1978, shortly after this incident.)"

Roberta said, "Oh, my story's about Nash, too! One late night, he accosted me in the main corridor at MIT. He stood way too close to me and screamed at me that I wasn't very smart, that I wasn't a very good mathematician, and that I didn't belong in the math department because, after all, I was only a girl. And when I turned to leave he followed me down the corridor screaming at me for quite some time."

"That incident changed my life. I dropped out of the math department, and into mechanical engineering. He was probably right -- I was a good mathematician, but not a great one. And in math, you have to be great. [I've heard this from a mathematician client, too. HP] So I switched into mechanical engineering." And she told me the details of quite an illustrious career.

She continued, "To this day, I don't know if he actually knew something, or if he was just acting out of his prejudices. But he actually did me a favor."

So my Mom and some stranger find themselves talking about a crazy lady they've both met. And decades later, Roberta and I are both talking about John Nash, whom we've both barely met.  Why? And why do we talk about Lindsay Lohan?

Here's my theory:


Think about it: there are millions of crazy people on this planet. And the only people who talk about them are their families, maybe some friends, and the professionals who are helping them.

There are lots of talented (and I include beautiful) people, as well. They do their jobs, people admire them, but really, no one talks about them except in relation to their work.

But somehow, we talk about the ones who are both talented and crazy.

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