A little while back, neuroethologist Zen Faulkes said in a post on crowdfunding that he “want[s] to be the Amanda Palmer of science crowdfunding“, Amanda Palmer being a musician who just had massive success crowdfunding her new album. And he’s also on record as wanting to be “the Iggy Pop of science“, Iggy Pop being a rock star who continues to rock just as hard in his 60s as he did when he was young. The analogy would be a scientist who doesn’t just do his best work when he’s young.
I’m not really into Iggy Pop (the only song of his I really like is “Candy“, mainly for the vocals from the amazing Kate Pierson). But my ambitions are similar to Zen’s. So I’ll say that I want to be the Jamie Moyer of science. Jamie Moyer, for those of you who don’t know, is a pitcher in Major League Baseball. He is 49. Yes, you read that right. He is the oldest player in Major League Baseball by a wide margin. Earlier this year he became the oldest MLB pitcher ever to win a game. He’s been around so long there are all kinds of ridiculous facts about him (which hasn’t stopped others from making a bunch up, just for fun).
Why Jamie Moyer? Well, basically because it seems like the highest I can reasonably aim at this point. I’m almost 40, an age by which even many ecologists (a field not known for child prodigies) have done, or soon will do, their best work. If I was going to win the Mercer Award, I’d almost certainly have won it by now. So it’s not realistic for me to say “I want to be the Beatles of science” or “the Stephen Spielberg of science” or anything like that. I’m never going to be that big a deal. Indeed, I’m never even going to be as big a deal as mathematician Paul Erdös, the most-published mathematician in history and the exemplar of a scientist who remained productive into old age. So basically, I wanted to pick someone who was pretty good for a long time without ever being great, peaked relatively late, and eventually became appreciated as something of a unique curiosity.
Moyer seems to fit the bill. In stark contrast to most professional baseball players, who peak from about 27-30, Moyer’s best years all came after he was 34. He’s only made one All-Star team, and he’s never won the Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher in the league (and only twice has he even received any votes for that award). And he doesn’t pass the “eye test” of what a good pitcher should look like. For a professional athlete, he’s not physically imposing. And he’s famous for not throwing very hard. A typical major league pitcher can throw about 89-90 miles per hour. Moyer’s never thrown harder than the mid-80s (which is quite slow for a major leaguer), and in his recent record-setting win he topped out at 78 mph. He succeeds by really “knowing how to pitch”, as the baseball cliche goes. He’s what you might call a craftsman rather than a genius. His skills are very real, but they’re of an unusual and subtle type most readily appreciated by his fellow professionals and hardcore baseball fans.
Analogously, I am not physically imposing, even for an ecologist (although I try to fake it). I don’t pass the “eye test” of what a good ecologist should look like: I mostly work in a lab, don’t even own any boots to get muddy, and work on fundamental topics that aren’t easily appreciated by the general public. I’m not massively productive or widely cited. But I do things my own way (I have a pretty high percentage of first- and sole-authored papers). And I’m proud that that way of doing things occasionally draws very flattering comments from colleagues who I really admire. And while my peak may never be that high, I like to think that I’m above average, and that I could sustain my current level for many years yet. Which someday might be enough for people to start making up silly facts about me.
So how would you complete the sentence “I want to be the [famous non-scientist] of science”?