Letters to a Young Scientist

Whether you’re “young” or not (for that matter, whether you’re a scientist or not), who wouldn’t want a little advice from E. O. Wilson? Dr. Wilson (and shame on you if you’ve never heard of him!) is a biologist and theorist, and a leading authority on ants. His work has spanned an incredible seven decades, and his most recent book is a humble volume called Letters to Young Scientist (available in hardcover and for Kindle).

Much has changed since a bright-eyed Edward Wilson launched his career. Although science has long been subdivided into tightly-focused specialties, the extent to which the subdivisions have proliferated, and the sophistication of the technology available to researchers, would have astounded–but no doubt delighted–a young Wilson fresh out of college.

Some things in science stay the same, and it is in these matters that aspiring scientists can learn from the octogenarian who has traveled the world, partnered with hundreds of coauthors, and been celebrated as one of the most brilliant and influential minds of the 20th (and 21st) centuries.

Be open to wonder. Be persistent. Work hard. Don’t be afraid to collaborate across unexpected disciplines. Make your mark. And if you’re not good at math, or don’t much like it, find someone who does and team up with them. That’s a very terse summary of Dr. Wilson’s advice, but, I think, a fair one. And it’s that last bit (about the math) that has provoked shouts of consternation from some critics. Math is, they object, so intimately interwoven with the essence of the scientific enterprise and the day-to-day work of research, that to poo-poo its necessity will discourage would-be scientists or irrevocably stunt their careers. I’m not a scientist, but I never found math a problem, so it’s hard for me to judge who’s right and who’s wrong. My sense is that we should do everything to encourage ALL young people, but especially aspiring scientists and technologists, to know math inside and out. It seems folly to me to think that in the 21st century one could get very far in science without having a solid command of the requisite computational and analytic tools.

I would have been happy having read Letters to a Young Scientist if for no other reason than learning what a “bioblitz” is.  According to Dr. Wilson, “Bioblitzes are events in which experts on every kind of organism, from bacteria to birds, gather to find and identify as many species as possible during a stated short period of time, usually twenty-four hours.” It’s a great teaching tool, both for kids and adults, and I hope to participate in one someday.

In Letters Wilson shares a number of stories that show that science isn’t just number-cranking drudgery, but can be punctuated with experiences of surprise and delight. He recounts the story of painting living ants with dead-ant smell (my characterization) and watching their fellow workers deliver them, kicking and screaming, to the rubbish heap at the outskirts of the colony.  He also shares his idea that one could extract traces of alarm pheromones from ancient ants trapped in amber, synthesize some quantity of the chemical, and inject it into a modern-day colony of descendant ants; in effect, delivering a message from 25 million years in the past!

It’s a sad truth that we won’t have E. O. Wilson around for much longer. He’s 83 years old as of this writing, but he’s still active, and no doubt still has a book or two left in him. If you have an opportunity to hear him speak (and I have) don’t miss it.

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