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How do you Doogie? Science’s infatuation with young prodigies

Kids who excel at science have a number of ways to flaunt their intellect. For me, activities like Math League, Science Olympiad, and Chess Club were useful—especially if, say, it had been a while since my peers had stuffed me in a dumpster. But there was one show of academic heft, one feather in the old mortarboard, one way to impress the world with scholarly prowess that I could never achieve: I could never be unusually young.

Being young may not sound like much of an accomplishment. I mean, we’re all young at some point. But in the panoply of science accolades, youth seemed to hold extra cache. Yeah, you could win that ribbon at the Computer Fair, or sure, you could get elected president of the Rocketry Society—yet you’d always take a back seat to Little Bobby Who’s Only 7 Years Old And What Is He Doing, Calculus?

As a child, I was aware that Theoretical Little Bobby had gifts and talents, but I wasn’t sure how the whole Being Unusually Young thing was supposed to happen. Who enrolled Bobby in calculus in the first place? Did someone designate an accelerated academic path for him, or did he just wake up one day and say, “Mother, Father, please turn off Power Rangers and bring me a text on inverse trigonometric functions”? Where was the secret wormhole that led from elementary school straight to a doctoral program? 

I suppose some kids did actually skip grades—maybe not via a wormhole, but it was still an impressive feat. In fact, my dad skipped fourth grade. But he told us that he had hated being the smallest kid in his class, and he vowed never to let his children skip a grade (which my straight-arrow public school didn’t permit anyway), so I never learned whether I might have qualified for a similar promotion.

Not that skipping a grade would have made me unusually young, only slightly young. The 9-year-old whose classmates are 10 could just be a kid born close to the school year cutoff. No, to be truly impressive, to claim the mantle of Prodigy, you had to be so young that your abilities were outright ridiculous.

That seemed, at least from popular media, to be the gold standard. There was Mitch Taylor from Real Genius, recruited from high school to help Val Kilmer build lasers. There was the young aerodynamics and computer whiz Harold Wormser from Revenge of the Nerds; Badger, the little brother from Better Off Dead, who launches a space shuttle from his bedroom; and Roald Dahl’s Matilda reading Dickens at age 4. Whether it was Tony Stark, Wesley Crusher, or Ender Wiggin, society seemed to be saying that in order to really do something remarkable, you had to do it while you were remarkably young.

King of them all, of course, was biomedical wunderkind Doogie Howser, M.D., who graduated from medical school at 14—and who we all knew was smart because he ended every episode typing diary entries on a … wait for it … computer.

(The child phenom is almost always a science phenom, by the way—except in the short-lived TV series Phenom, in which the title character excelled at tennis.)

Somehow this fictitious pressure became real pressure, as science has latched on to the trope of the fledgling prodigy. We have Young Investigator Awards. We publish lists of “Thirty Promising Scientists Under 30,” or “One Hundred Young Scientists to Watch.” We celebrate those who founded startup companies in high school.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, having recently turned 40. I suppose, until now, there was always the possibility I might do something exceptional for my age—hey, I’ve seen “Forty Under 40” lists. Now those days are done. Journals don’t publish lists of “Eighty Promising Scientists Under 80.” No one meets me and says, “He owns his own company—and he’s only 40 years old!” Also, I don’t own a company.

Maybe we scientists have a thing for celebrating potential. As anyone who has published basic research knows, you can never be wrong saying that something—or, in this case, someone—shows promise. Of course your experiment shows promise. Pretty much anything shows promise. By lauding the promising young scientists who climb the ladder faster than usual, we’re commending something no one can object to.

Not that there’s anything wrong with supporting young talent. Early-career scientists need all the help they can get, and it’s a nice change of pace to reward the untenured and not-yet-established.

The flip side, however, is that science’s obsession with youth can make the path seem all the more daunting for the majority of us who progress at a more standard rate. In other words, the pressure is even greater to be not just a science genius, but a younger-than-usual science genius. The academic job market is already a horror show for young researchers. As tenure-track jobs grow scarcer, it can feel like the only way to succeed is to be absolutely exceptional—to finish laboratory training before finishing toilet training, or to have a registered patent before you have a registered birth certificate. Outside academia, you’re competing with dozens or hundreds of scientists for a single job. If one of those candidates happens to be young as well as smart, not only could employers see them as amazing, but also amazing-and-perhaps-accepting-of-lower-pay.

But if you’re like me, and your chronological age corresponds to your expected station in life, don’t get depressed. Most of us aren’t unusually young. And when you’re among a group of high achievers, like many scientists, it’s not so bad to be average. As I learned from the fact that I had to Google “scientists who succeeded early” and “scientists who made discoveries late in life” to find examples, your accomplishments themselves will be commemorated far better than the age at which you accomplished them.

Or maybe I’m just saying that because I feel old. Anyway, can someone please help me out of this dumpster?

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