Posted by: Jeremy Fox | May 10, 2012

“I want to be the [famous non-scientist] of science”

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”?


Responses

  1. Ahem. Paul Erdos was bigger than Steven Spielberg. Just saying. (No, I don’t get out much — why do you ask?)

    • If I change “Spielberg” to “Jesus”, would that be more accurate?

      So, you’re implying that Erdos wasn’t as big as the Beatles?

      • Certainly bigger than Kevin Bacon, ‘that other guy’ people calculate degrees of separation from.

  2. Answers via Twitter:

    Timothy Bonebrake: Salvador Dali (with a “?”; I guess Tim’s not sure he wants to be a surrealist scientist)

    Jorge Mederos: Walter Bonatti (famous mountain climber; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Bonatti)

  3. I am conflicted.

    On some days, I want to be the Mario Batali of Science.

    Others, I want to be the Masaharu Morimoto of Science.

    • Depending on whether you’re hungry for Italian food or Japanese food that day?

      When considering famous non-scientists, I didn’t consider chefs. Maybe I should have. There may be some who consider this blog sufficiently rude as to suggest that my ambition is to be the Gordon Ramsey of science.

    • Doesn’t the fact that you’re a blogger (i.e. you prepare short, quick scientific “meals”) mean that, if you want to be a scientific “chef”, you have to be the Rachel Ray of science? ;-)

      • Aie! No – more like Julia Child. Oh. Now that would be awesome, too!

      • So, when you do the scientific equivalent of dropping an entire chicken on the floor (say, an entire tray of samples), you’d just nonchalantly pick it up and continue as if nothing happened, saying “Remember, you are alone in the lab–no one can see you.” ;-)

  4. I take it you’re a southpaw…

    • Nope. Fortunately, handedness has less effect on the longevity of scientists than it does on pitchers.

      • Good point. The key to longevity in science is coming up and in with the four seam FB and then going low and away with the off speed stuff. Keep them ol’ readers and reviewers guessing…

      • Any and all analogies made between pitching strategies and their relevance to scientific practice, no matter how poor or astute, may not be re-broadcast, reproduced or re-transmitted without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.

      • At what point do these comments become so “inside baseball” that only you and I get the joke?

      • I note that you haven’t yet addressed the question posed by the post. I assume that’s because you’ve spent the past 24 hours combing through baseball-reference.com and all your old baseball cards, trying to identify your exact baseball equivalent.

  5. “At what point do these comments become so “inside baseball” that only you and I get the joke?”

    If you can’t swim with the big fish, stay out of the pond. And you’re interrupting my search through my old cards by the way.

    • “And you’re interrupting my search through my old cards by the way.”

      Hey, I’m just trying to help the ballclub. Do the little things it takes to win games.

      • OK I have spent much time on this. Well not really, but anyway, gotta make a pick, so I’m going with Curt Flood. Not for what he did on the field so much as off of it. Unafraid to sacrifice his own career for what he perceived to be the greater moral good. Arguably the single most important player in baseball history in that regard.

        As far as baseball skills and general attitude I’d go with Omar Vizquel. Similar to Moyer in playing forever and the smoothest, most dependable fielder you will ever see.

      • Well nobody’s probably reading at this point but I should have explained that Curt Flood was the player who first challenged the “reserve clause”, a rule in professional baseball that had, previous to the challenge (and a couple of subsequent challenges in the few years afterwards), prohibited players from playing for the team offering them the highest salary. Their rights were instead owned by whatever team had originally signed them.

  6. And hey, get a pair of boots desk jockey!


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