In praise of Slow Boy science

Back in college, I was on the cross-country team. Williams College was (and is) in NCAA Division III, which for non-US readers basically means the lowest level of intercollegiate athletics. But even in the context of Division III, I was a very slow runner. So slow that I was an official Slow Boy.

The Slow Boys were a self-selecting, tongue in cheek club within the men’s cross-country team. They were founded years earlier, when a few of the fastest guys on the track team started proudly calling themselves the Fast Boys. In response, some of the slowest guys on the track team started proudly calling themselves the Slow Boys. They even chose a Latin motto, “Festina lente”.* And somehow over the years, the Slow Boys (i) became a self-perpetuating thing, and (ii) became a cross-country thing rather than a track thing. Every year, at the end of the cross-country season, the current Slow Boys would select some of the first years to join their illustrious slow ranks. And they’d choose a rising senior as the new King Slow Boy, whose symbol of office was a jeweled scepter lead baton. Why yes, I was King Slow Boy in 1994, thanks for asking, please read the footnote to this sentence so I can bore you with an anecdote about that.** ๐Ÿ™‚

Why am I telling you all this? Because the queue was empty Because I think the institution of the Slow Boys illustrates some broadly-applicable lessons for science, about creating an environment in which everyone feels like part of the team and can achieve their full potential. We need Slow Boy science. ๐Ÿ™‚

Now, there are of course huge disanalogies between my college men’s cross-country team and science.*** For purposes of this post, two in particular stand out. First, cross-country is an individual sport. Ok, individuals can go a bit faster by running in a pack, but only a bit, and they have to be pretty similar runners for that to work. As one of the slowest guys on the team, there was nothing I could do to help the fastest seven guys run any faster, either in practices or races (the fastest seven are the only ones who matter for race scoring). And there was nothing they could do to help me run any faster, either. In contrast, science is much more of a team sport; it’s often very collaborative. Second, cross-country has a single, clear-cut goal: fastest runner wins (and fastest team of seven runners wins). That’s in contrast to science. Science doesn’t have a single goal, except in a very broad and loose sense like “learn about the world”. Rather, there are many different sorts of scientific research, on many different topics, that complement one another. And so we want scientists as a group to be a big diverse group. That way, scientists can pursue all of the many complementary sorts of scientific research that are worth pursuing, and that couldn’t be pursued effectively by any one individual, or by a bunch of identical individuals. All of which means that a cross-country team doesn’t seem like first place you’d look to learn any lessons about how to do science. Many of the reasons why diversity is valuable in a scientific context just don’t apply in the context of cross-country.

But others do:

1. Slow Boysย can make the top 7 faster–if one of the Slow Boys turns out to actually be fast enough to make the top 7 himself. My good friend Greg Crowther was both a Slow Boy and, by his senior year, one of the fastest 7 guys on the team.**** In a scientific context, think of “Slow Boys” as people who aren’t obviously destined for scientific greatness. For instance, a student who doesn’t have perfect marks in their science courses, or appears different in some way from our stereotypical image of a scientist, but who would be an excellent scientist given the right opportunity and environment.

2. Slow Boys remind everyone that it’s good to do something just because you like doing it. You don’t have to run to win, or to set world records, or to make a professional career out of it. Analogously, I’ve come round to the view that it’s fine for someone to go to grad school in science just because they’d enjoy spending a few years doing good science, even if they don’t know what they’re going to do with the degree. Or heck, even if they know they’re not going to “use” the degree by going on to a career in science.

3. Being a Slow Boy doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive or ambitious. I definitely wanted to beat any runners from Amherst or Wesleyan who happened to be near me at the end of the Little 3 race.***** And I definitely wanted to improve my personal best time. Analogously, just because you know you’re never going to win a Nobel Prize or the Waterman Award or whatever doesn’t mean you thereby have to treat science as a casual hobby in which all competitiveness or ambition would be out of place.

4. Having Slow Boys around is good for healthy team social dynamics. And healthy team social dynamics are a good thing even if they don’t have any detectable effect on how fast anyone runs, or on the quality of science anyone does. The Slow Boys had a distinctive social role, as the self-effacing butt of good-natured jokes. That role suited my personality, as well as my lack of speed. And having a social “niche” I could fill made feel like part of the team. In contrast, back when I was in high school, I was one of the weakest players on my baseball team. But my high school baseball team didn’t have any equivalent of the Slow Boys. I was just a comparatively weak player who wasn’t close friends with anyone else on the team, and so I had only the minimum required interactions with the other players and the coaches. I often felt like I was just along for the ride, there to make up the numbers. It was much less fun for me than my college cross-country team. Even though, when it came to my contributions to team victories, I really was just along for the ride on my college cross-country team, to an even greater extent than I was on my high school baseball team! The point here is that it’s good to have a bunch of social niches, so that everyone can find their own niche.

It’s important to have “Slow Boys” around, in their own niches in which to compete and contribute, because in cross-country, and science (and life!), pretty much everyone is a figurative “Slow Boy”. Everyone on my college cross-country team, even the top 7 guys, was a Slow Boy in the context of all the world’s distance runners. Nobody on the team was going to set any world records or win Olympic gold, and the team was never going to win any prize bigger than the Division III national championship. Analogously, unless you’re one of the very rare scientists who turns out to be a Darwin or a Curie, your own contribution to humanity’s collective scientific knowledge is likely to be some combination of small, replaceable, and quickly forgotten. That’s not a criticism of anyone, or a lament, it’s just how it is. After all, there are a lot of scientists in the world, so it’s incredibly rare for any single scientist to matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. But all our small individual contributions still add up to something much bigger than any one person. And in order for them to add up to as much as possible we need everybody, contributing as best they can to their own “teams” (their own labs, own classed, own departments, own universities, etc.). We need Slow Boy science. ๐Ÿ™‚

*”Make haste slowly”. Now you know where this blog got its taste for pretentious Latin mottoes.

**My main official act as King was to help design our 10th anniversary t-shirts. Though the best part of the shirts–the slogan “Passed, present and future”–was coined by my teammate Gerry.

***For instance, science’s mascot is not an ancient teddy bear named “The Bear” that regularly gets stolen from science by rival scholarly fields.

****He was still a Slow Boy, though. Being a Slow Boy wasn’t solely a matter of being a slow runner.

*****Amherst****** and Wesleyan are Williams’ biggest rivals. The three schools are collectively known as the “Little 3”. Which I would happily bore you about for hours if this post wasn’t already so self-indulgent. Studies show that the only thing more boring than hearing about someone else’s dream last night is hearing about someone else’s nostalgia for their undergraduate college. In my own defense, everybody’s entitled to a bit of self-indulgence now and then. ๐Ÿ™‚

******Pronounced “am HERST”; it’s a hard “h” and the accent is on the second syllable. Don’t @ me, Ambika. ๐Ÿ˜‰


5 thoughts on “In praise of Slow Boy science

  1. I really enjoy the analogy of “slow boy”. As somebody who reaalllyy wanted to be a marine biologist and ended up happily working at a biotech company, I have found that my desire of being a professional slow boy in the literature of marine ecology has not been well explained until now. I agree that we need more people like this who do it because they really enjoy it. While fast boys put out great work, the quality and attention to detail can be drastically different when there is genuine interest in a topic rather than working on a project as a means to another publication.

  2. Last night I was working on a manuscript that included the line โ€œdata were collected in 2007 and 2008.โ€
    Iโ€™ll be sure to mention that when I fill out my slow boy science club application form.

  3. I’ll admit that I immediately googled “Jeremy fox cross-country Williams College” to see if there was any track/cross-country profiles lingering on, mile-split, or Williams College websites. I was a slow person back in high school. I entered not being able to run a full 5k. Eventually, I was the only person on the team who both worked hard and was lucky enough to not have any long-term injuries. I eventually got to be ok by my last year of high school (in the top few on my team due to other’s injuries).

    In semi-related news, I finally got a tenure track position this week, so maybe my academic life isn’t too far off my athletic one. I feel like I got lucky to not have any big personal setbacks that affected my work, but never have been particularly good or innovative. Cheers to “slow folks”.

    • And to save you some googling, I remain inordinately proud of the one time I broke 30 min. in an (almost) 5 mile race. 28:44 in the 1992 Little 3 at Wesleyan. ๐Ÿ™‚

      For comparison, the fastest guys on our team were Div III national champion contenders; one in fact won the Div III national championship. Those guys were going as low as 24:30ish over 5 miles. I couldn’t match that pace for even 1 mile.

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