As a little girl, I wanted to be a naturalist. I read numerous books on the subject, complete with their diagrams of pitfall traps and lists of field supplies. For a while, I turned my playhouse in the backyard into a naturalist’s laboratory; there were jars of pillbugs and harvestmen in the windowsill, my little microscope at the desk, charts and drawings on the walls, and an extensive–and much prized–rock collection. I idolized Jeff Corwin and David Attenborough, and imagined being hauled up into the rainforest canopy in a harness to examine stick insects, operating on big cats as a zoo vet, or roaming across the tundra, gathering lichens and following the caribou migration when I grew up.
My interest in science dwindled miserably as I enter high school, where administrators made it very clear that advanced science classes came coupled with advanced math classes, and that they were under no circumstances to be separated from each other. While I was okay at math, it had never been a subject I enjoyed, or had any interest in excelling at; but my beloved biology was now tainted with a fear of calculus. Dreading the advanced physics equations that I imagined would be the substance of my secondary science education, I shied away from the highest levels, and decided instead to turn to the advanced humanities classes, where no trigonometry lurked.
Unfortunately, this is a common story. Most kids are scientists by nature–questioning, examining, building and disassembling–and many of them are scared or bored out of pursuing it by the time they reach middle school. Part of the problem is the state of public education–and there is no time for a rampage here–which disadvantages teachers that take precious time out of their yearly curricula for non-standards-based science lessons. But another huge problem is the trend towards specialization in both secondary and college education. It was nearly impossible at my public high school to take both the advanced math/science and the advanced liberal arts tracks without collapsing of exhaustion. Unless they were bent on attending an Ivy, bright kids were encouraged by administration, teachers, and their parents to choose one track or the other. This meant that by the time you entered 9th grade, you had been pegged by yourself and your superiors as either a “math kid” or an “arts kid.” Those on the advanced math/science route were not generally there without purpose; they already had goals of college education in laboratory science, engineering, or technology. Those of us who didn’t necessarily want to be an engineer landed on the arts route by default.
If you choose the science track, and get through the AP tests and into the college of your choice, right away you are pushed to specialize once again. What will you do your graduated degree in? What will you publish on? You had better specialize now, and you had better choose something no one else is working on, because if you do, it will be a lifelong race to be the first to invent, publish, and discover.
If I had not thought when I entered high school that a career in science meant (a) loads of math and (b) working in a sterile lab and wearing a white coat the rest of my life, I may have pursued a different path. I loved science, but I loved the science of the khaki explorer’s vest and hand lens, of the plant press and the pet raccoon. But we are not encouraged to study science for fun or for personal enrichment, and we are not encouraged to be generalists in our studies. Natural History has been mostly left out of the nationwide discussion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education, mostly because it is less specialized, less flashy, and less likely to create the next Steve Jobs. Compared with optics, astrophysics, or biomedical engineering, natural history seems to smell of mothballs. Natural history seems somewhat Slow. And, despite the numerous Slow movements that have broken ground since the earliest days of Slow Food, Slow Science still seems like an oxymoron.
But there have been attempts at creating a Slow Science movement; it even has a wikipedia page. In true Slow spirit, manifestos have been written, mostly arguing against the “publish-or-perish” system in established academia. In fact, this is the main platform of the movement: the argument is that when scientists are pushed to speed up their research and experimentation, mistakes are made and findings are released before proper testing. While this is certainly an important aspect of Slowing science down, I might suggest that a philosophy of Slow Science involves more than merely the rate at which findings are published. Science has become literally and metaphorically “Fast” in many other ways since the nineteenth century. I think that Fast, in the context of the biological sciences in particular, implies several other things: a widespread mechanization and use of specialized, expensive technology (DNA analysis software, particle accelerators, supercomputers, etc.); an assumption about the separateness of the sciences and the humanities; an increased emphasis on specialization rather than generalization; an emphasis on lab- and computer-work over field work, and an attitude that the purpose of science as a practice is contribution to the canon of scientific discovery, rather than personal discovery or transformation. All of these factors make Fast Science prohibitive to those who were not on the STEM track in school; Slow Science would, therefore, not just affect professional scientists, but hobbyists, science educators and communicators as well. Slow Science would be influenced by Carl Honoré’s 2004 definition (from In Praise of Slowness): “Slow is… calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.” Slow Science would emphasize the sciences not just as an education and career path that leads to a lifetime of white coats and PCR analysis, but as a way to satisfy personal curiosity and find wonder, enrichment, and intellectual growth in the world around us. Slow Science would encourage observation and reflection and promote ready dialogue between the sciences and the humanities. It would work to bridge the gap between STEM professionals and “everybody else,” to create an environment that values individual discovery as well as institutional discovery.
For Slow Science to really gain ground, I think it would be necessary to re-instate natural history as an important aspect of the sciences, simply because it is the most accessible and democratic: to practice natural history, you only need curiosity and field guides (easily accessible in most libraries). Natural history is the science most people come into contact with the most, whether they realize it or not, when they watch clouds, observe an unusual insect that has come into the house, enjoy morning birdsong, or pick up a pretty stone. It is quiet, observant, reflective, and more reliant on walks outside than on computers or other technology. And, just as a meaningful night of stargazing could open up a passion for astrophysics, natural history could potentially act as a “gateway science,” opening up possible interests in the Faster Sciences in those who may not have expected it of themselves.