eBay as indicator of public interest in scientists

By Tom McCutchan | Feb 02, 2012

I studied at Yale University for four years and during that time I met a number people who were to become famous, at least in the scientific world. We were young and our conversations turned to sports or to the opposite sex as often as they did to science. You can imagine my surprise when years later I saw the autograph of one of my friends from those years for sale on eBay. He had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine but I still thought of him as a guy that I used to go to Rudy’s with after work for a beer.

I pored over every letter of the signature. It was real. I have no idea what possessed me to bid for it, but I did. The bidding had started at $10 dollars for the signature of a Nobel Laureate. I knew that the price would go up. Being awarded the Nobel Prize means being awarded a place in history. While thinking about how a friend of mine could have risen to such heights, however, I remembered my amazement at Nobel Laureate Tom Cech’s reply when questioned about his plans for the monetary portion of the prize. You might have expected him to announce that it would be used set some scientific or humanitarian corner stone into place. He instead reflected the concerns of many of us. He said that he had two growing daughters and that they would know how to spend it.

Although it was days before the auction of interest was to end, the next day I had an urge to go back to eBay and to see whether I still had the high bid. This time I used “Nobel and autograph” as key words in my search. To my surprise there was a market in the autographs of Nobel laureates on eBay. People that I had admired and looked to over the years, David Baltimore, J.D Watson, Paul Berg, Hamilton Smith and Phillip Sharp were all there — even Tom Cech, whose daughters must have been reaching college age. The surprising thing was that the signatures of people who had reached the pinnacle of their profession were listed at $3. Each one of these men had played a central role in scientific advances that will affect many of our children or grandchildren in the future. My son, who has type 1 diabetes, now has a clean source of human insulin, while my generation used insulin isolated from cows. Now he lives a normal existence with high expectations for the future, and there are days now that I don’t even think about his disease. This is due to the work of Paul Berg and Hamilton Smith, among others.

David Baltimore’s discovery of an enzyme called “ reverse transcriptase”, which is essential for HIV reproduction, was crucial to our response to the AIDS pandemic. Tom Cech and Sidney Altman turned the scientific world on its head by totally altering our view of the role of RNA from solely that of an information carrier to a molecule that performed functions. Their discoveries of the potential of RNA to perform specific tasks will almost certainly lead to the tools required to eliminate certain genetic and virally-induced diseases. These men and women will touch you as surely as they have touched me.

I placed a bid for all of them except Tom Cech, who is younger than I am. We have never met and people say that he is brilliant and yet genuine, but asking for the signature of someone who is younger than me, unless he is a baseball player, is not something my ego will allow.

The bidding for these autographs was not to end until 12:30 that night. It had been a long day for me and it seemed senseless to monitor the auction until the last second, and so I went to bed. I remember feeling that, with the cost of a little framing, I would have a display of some of the great milestones of biology. If someone mentioned that Tom Cech was missing from the collection I was just going to say, “yes, that is a pity, isn’t it?”

While I slept in ignorant bliss, what I imagine to be a pale, little man positioned himself in front of his computer and went to work. He started going through the list of autographs alphabetically, placing bids of $3.25 on each of the signatures, just 25 cents higher than my bids. He must have methodically worked through the all names until he got to Prof. Phillip Sharp. He may have either miscalculated the time involved in placing a bid or have been unaware that he wasn’t the only miscreant working that night. I imagine that just as he was about to enter $3.25 for Phil Sharp, a computer alert popped up indicating that he had an email message. He panicked and went back to his message board. Who would have been writing at that time of night? I imagine that it was a message from eBay saying that he had been out-bid for the signature of Dr. Paul Berg ($3.76 or more). Frantically, he started to re-bid for Paul Berg but ran out of time; hence, he lost both the signatures of Paul Berg and the Phil Sharp. As a result, I had won one Phil Sharp autograph for $3, plus shipping charges and a congratulatory note from email. Congratulations?

This eBay game is a blood sport.

The market determines the value of autographs just like everything else. What I discovered is sobering. Since I had been surprised at the low price at which these signatures had been sold, I looked to see what comparable signatures of other public figures were selling for. Some of you may remember the original Mouseketeers. An Annette Funicello signature was selling for $49, and even Cubby was selling for $29. For the next generation, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake each sold for between $60 and $100. Jenifer Anniston, picture not included, sold for $120. Donald Trump’s autograph was listed for $119. I don’t think that it sold for that and maybe it was listed by Mr. Trump himself, but I don’t know that for sure. A number of senators and governors were also listed at between $30 and $50. The list goes on. I personally didn’t see any other autographs listed for under $5.

Perhaps the bottom line is that the public doesn’t really find scientists as intriguing as we find ourselves. And I suppose I would also rather have a Yogi Berra autograph if I could afford it.

 

 

 

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