I received a prize last week. An international organization surprised me at a faculty meeting with a gift of a framed certificate and an item that looks like an Egyptian obelisk for display on a credenza or mantle. They recognized work I did 15 years ago for its consequence, the details of which need not concern us here. To be on the receiving end was refreshing, since giving prizes and recognitions of various kinds is part of my job. All this led me to reflect on the point of such activity.

And what a lot of activity: We have just completed the annual ritual of Nobel Prize announcements. Wikipedia lists several hundred famous prizes given more or less annually. Just Googling on “prizes” yields 67.5 million references. Then there are the little gifts in Crackerjack and cereal boxes, called “prizes.” Prizes are ubiquitous.

But there is an anti-prize sentiment in the air. Recently, Grigory Perelman refused to accept the Fields Medal in Mathematics, saying he did not want to become a figurehead for the mathematical community. He said the prize “was completely irrelevant for me. Everybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.” He doesn’t need prizes. His accomplishments speak for themselves. Less celebrity is more. Then too, we have the anti-prizes themselves, such as the Weasel Award and the Darwin Award. Perhaps the largest argument against prizes is their very proliferation in recent times: the more of them, the less distinguished is each individual recognition—this was immortalized in the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert in The Gondoliers, “If everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

The anti-prize sentiment misses the point: we should give prizes and recognitions not because we need more celebrity (Perelman), more notoriety (The Darwin Award), or more feel-good esteem-building. We don’t do this for the sake of individuals, but for the sake of the larger community. Prizes should continue to remind everyone of ideals and virtues, the things we value in society. The proliferation of prizes, like the expansion of the ‘net and open-source software, represents a democratization of sorts—in this instance, of our expression of those ideals and virtues. Public opinion will sort out the pecking order, which of these prizes matter more than the others. Ideals and virtues will gain.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 10/23/2006 06:24:17 PM