I read recently that two men had won the Draper prize for developing the charge-coupled device (CCD) that forms the basis for all of our digital cameras and video cameras.  It is for work they did beginning in 1969.  The prize is in the amount of $500,000 to be split between them. 

Now we’re all supposed to be excited by this and say how nice it is that someone is recognized for his work.  I look at it slightly more cynically.

What struck me was that:

  1. These guys only got recognized nearly 40 years after their work.
  2. These are supposedly the best of the best.  Only they got $500,000.  Everyone else doing good work gets nothing.  Sometimes you get a certificate or a little clear plastic trophy-like bauble.
  3. They probably got none of the billions of dollars that their work led to.
  4. They had to share it. 
  5. Lots of random (and much less intelligent) people probably got wealthy by investing their money in part of one of the spinoffs of this work.

The lesson I take away from this is that not only is it very difficult to do work like this, you’re not rewarded very well for it.  If you’re intelligent, life just gets hard; but if you are of average intelligence with a head for business you get get rich off the backs of men like these two.

What do I council my children to do with their lives?  Well, I haven’t advised either of them to go into the sciences.  I’ve been advocating using their intelligence to go after money and prestige.  I advocate hard work and energy directed towards these ends.  Unfortunately, they apparently are seeing me as cynical and bitter and are moving along with their idealistic minds into following their dreams. 

I don’t know who’s right.