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March 29, 2007

Nemesis or Archenemy

Via Julianne of Cosmic Variance, the rules of the game for choosing your archnemesis. The rules are so great, I reproduce them here, in full.

1. Your archnemesis cannot be your junior. Someone who is in a weaker position than you is not worthy of being your archnemesis. If you designate someone junior as your archnemesis, you’re abusing your power.

2. You cannot have more than one archnemesis. Most of us have had run-ins with scientific groups who range continuous war against all outsiders. They take a scorched earth policy to anyone who is not a member of their club. However, while these people are worthy candidates for being your archnemesis, they are not allowed to have that many archnemeses themselves. If you find that many, many people are your archnemeses, then you’re either (1) paranoid; (2) an asshole; or (3) in a subfield that is so poisonous that you should switch topics. If (1) or (2) is the case, tone it down and try to be a bit more gracious.

3. Your archnemesis has to be comparable to you in scientific ability. It is tempting to despise the one or two people in your field who seem to nab all the job offers, grants, and prizes. However, sometimes they do so because they are simply more effective scientists (i.e. more publications, more timely ideas, etc) or lucky (i.e. wound up discovering something unexpected but cool). If you choose one of these people as an archnemesis based on greater success alone, it comes off as sour grapes. Now, if they nabbed all the job offers, grants, and prizes because they stole people’s data, terrorized their juniors, and misrepresented their work, then they are ripe and juicy for picking as your archnemesis. They will make an even more satisfying archnemesis if their sins are not widely known, because you have the future hope of watching their fall from grace (not that this actually happens in most cases, but the possibility is delicious). Likewise, other scientists may be irritating because their work is consistently confusing and misguided. However, they too are not candidates for becoming your archnemesis. You need to take a benevolent view of their struggles, which are greater than your own. [Ed: Upon recovering my composure after reading this last line, I decided it is, indeed, extremely good advice.]

4. Archnemesisness is not necessarily reciprocal. Because of the rules of not picking fights with your juniors, you are not necessarily your archnemesis’s archnemesis. A senior person who has attempted to cut down a grad student or postdoc is worthy of being an archnemesis, but the junior people in that relationship are not worthy of being the archnemesis of the senior person. There’s also the issue that archnemeses are simply more evil than you, so while they’ll work hard to undermine you, you are sufficiently noble and good that you would not actively work to destroy them (though you would smirk if it were to happen).

Now, what does one do with an archnemesis? Nothing. The key to using your archnemesis effectively is to never, ever act as if they’re your archnemesis (except maybe over beers with a few close friends when you need to let off steam). You do not let yourself sink to their level, and take on petty fights. You do not waste time obsessing about them. Instead, you treat them with the same respect that you would any other colleague (though of course never letting them into a position where they could hurt you, like dealing with a cobra). You only should let your archnemesis serve as motivation to keep pursuing excellence (because nothing annoys a good archnemesis like other people’s success) and as a model of how not to act towards others. You’re allowed to take private pleasure in their struggles or downfall, but you must not ever gloat.

While I’m sure the above sounds so thrilling that you want to rush out and get yourself an archnemesis, if one has not been thrust upon you, count your blessings. May your good fortune continue throughout your career.

In the comment thread, bswift points to a 2004 Esquire magazine piece by Chuck Klosterman on the difference between your (arch)nemesis and your archenemy. Again, quoting liberally.

Now, I know that you’re probably asking yourself, How do I know the difference between my nemesis and my archenemy? Here is the short answer: You kind of like your nemesis, despite the fact that you despise him. If your nemesis invited you out for cocktails, you would accept the offer. If he died, you would attend his funeral and—privately—you might shed a tear over his passing. But you would never have drinks with your archenemy, unless you were attempting to spike his gin with hemlock. If you were to perish, your archenemy would dance on your grave, and then he’d burn down your house and molest your children. You hate your archenemy so much that you try to keep your hatred secret, because you don’t want your archenemy to have the satisfaction of being hated.

Naturally I wonder, Do I have an archnemesis, or an archenemy? Over the years, I've certainly had a few adversarial relationships, and many lively sparring matches, with people at least as junior as me, but they've never been driven by the same kind of deep-seated resentment, and general bad behavior, that these two categories seem to require. So, I count myself lucky that in the fictional story of my life, I've had only "benign" professional relationships - that is, the kind disqualified from nemesis status. However, on the (quantum mechanical) chance that my fictional life takes a dramatic turn, and a figure emerges to play the Mr. Burns to my Homer Simpson, the Newman to my Seinfeld, the Dr. Evil to my Austin Powers, I'll keep these rules (and that small dose of hemlock) handy.

Update, March 30, 2007: Over in the comment section, I posed the question of whether Feynman was Gell-Mann's archnemesis, as I suspected. Having recently read biographies of both men (here and here), it was hard to ignore the subtle (and not-so-subtle) digs that each man made at the other through these stories. A fellow commenter Elliot, who was at Caltech when Gell-Mann received his Nobel confirmed that Feynman was indeed Gell-Mann's archnemesis, not for scientific reasons, but for social ones. Looking back over the rules of the game, Feynman does indeed satisfy all the criteria. Cute.

posted March 29, 2007 12:04 AM in Simply Academic | permalink