By Gaston Jean-Louis ‘16, THURJ Staff
Much has been written recently about the dearth of students training to be the next generation of scientists needed to maintain technological competitiveness in the United States. Albert Einstein purportedly said, “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.” By Einstein’s reasoning, the best way to increase the ranks of young researchers is to encourage the development of such “character.” In his Letters to a Young Scientist, Edward O. Wilson, Joseph Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology at Harvard and creator of the fields of sociobiology and island biogeography, attempts to do just that, reminding the recipients of his “letters” that “[they] are needed” (p. 187) to answer the questions raised by scientific exploration.
From the outset, Wilson agrees with the spirit of Einstein’s quip, emphasizing the importance of passion for scientific exploration over formal education and training. In his first letter, Wilson describes a childhood spent informally exploring the fauna surrounding his home in Mobile, Alabama. His character as a budding scientist becomes evident early in the book as Wilson recalls time spent as a nature counselor at a Boy Scout summer camp, where he led younger scouts to wrangle with snakes and survey the variety of species living in the region. “If venomous, I would first press it down just behind the head with a stick, roll the stick forward until its head was immobile, then grasp it by the neck and lift it up,” (23) Wilson writes, illustrating the willingness to take risks that he frequently describes as a key component of a scientist’s character. The author gives comparatively little credit for his success as a scientist to his education in Mobile’s relaxed school system and a “tolerant” (24) Harvard that, in the early 1950s, considered Wilson “a prodigy in field biology and entomology” (25). Although he notes that science education is today more rigorous, Wilson still professes that passion for a particular discipline—not training therein—is essential for successful scientists. He later suggests that being at the cutting edge of science does not require a remarkable degree of innate intelligence, but rather conscientiousness, noting that “the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree” (79). While he is careful not to trivialize education and natural ability, Wilson argues that it is more important for scientists to nurture a passion toward which to direct those qualities. Surprisingly, Wilson argues that extreme intelligence can in fact be detrimental, as those who possess it tend to eschew the toiling and tedious tasks that science often requires, though this generalization is rather weakly supported.
In a similar emphasis of passion over intellect and formal training, Wilson attempts to allay the prohibitive dread of many a would-be scientist: the fear of mathematics. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Wilson asserts that success in science neither necessitates nor is guaranteed by a strong mathematical ability, noting that he was “never more than a C student while catching up” (33) in mathematics courses he took with undergraduates after becoming a professor at Harvard. The author asserts that while mathematicians often help to build theory, scientists help define and solve problems. Though Wilson’s argument has some merit, it ignores the need for efficiency and the limited resources which may constrain a researcher’s ability to depend on math help from others. Perhaps realizing this complication, Wilson concludes the chapter devoted to this subject noting that while some of the more quantitative disciplines –physics and certain specialties of chemistry and biology, for example –require a relatively high degree of mathematical competence, aspiring researchers can always find a branch of science to suit their skills and abilities.
Another of Wilson’s key lessons is the importance of conducting research in areas where relatively little is already known. A visionary biologist whose research and writing spurred new disciplines of science, Wilson urges readers to forgo the glamour of trendy areas of research: “If a subject is already receiving a great deal of attention, if it has a glamorous aura, if its practitioners are prizewinners who receive large grants, stay away from that subject” (45). Rather, the author suggests that interesting subjects yet to be explored by other experts present the best opportunities for groundbreaking research. “You may feel lonely and insecure in your first endeavors,” Wilson warns, “but . . . your best chance to make your mark and to experience the thrill of discovery will be there” (46). As logical as this advice may seem, it is rather surprising for someone playing the role of adviser to many would-be scientists to buck the trends of scientific research, especially given the remarkable advances that came from competition among scientists performing the same research. Francis Crick and James Watson, who discovered the double helical structure of DNA in 1953, are just two examples of scientists who achieved great success while working in a fairly crowded field.
Wilson’s combination of advice and autobiography nonetheless presents the approach of digging into new fields as both difficult and necessary. He recalls the vehement criticism, protests, and lecture disruptions that ensued from his argument that human beings had instincts and a genetically determined nature, theories he published in 1975 in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (71). But Wilson also acknowledges such criticism as an integral component of the creative and scientific processes, and that forceful debate is essential to ensuring that scientific research reaches the correct conclusions.
Unorthodox thinking and unexpected lessons pervade Wilson’s letters, and some of the veteran researcher’s insights present a more studied assessment of the current state of science than many other observers provide. Beyond the surprising assertions that passion trumps innate ability, that math is relatively unimportant, and that unknown fields are best suited to cutting-edge research, Wilson also casts some doubt on the role of collaboration in scientific research. Although he acknowledges the commonly held view that teamwork will continue to play an increasingly significant role in the creation of new scientific knowledge, Wilson asks, “…[I]s groupthink the best way to create really new science?” (92). The entomologist argues instead that the creative process begins with the idea and ambition of a single person; collaborators then work with that initial innovator to bring the idea to fruition. Here Wilson’s more nuanced thinking seems likely as an explanation for the recent spike in scientific collaboration—evidenced by the increasing number of co-authors on scientific papers and the rise in international cooperation on projects. This may be due more to specialization in and unique capacities for particular aspects of a research project than to the need for multiple researchers to think about the same problems and solutions.
Despite Wilson’s helpful hints for his audience of scientist-hopefuls and his unique perspective on current issues in science, the organization of his book occasionally diminishes its ability to convey those lessons. Letters to a Young Scientist is three-quarters memoir and one-quarter guidebook for aspiring researchers, a structure that frequently subjects the reader to long stretches about the author’s research on ants containing a lesson or principle buried deep within the autobiographical details. “You may think of my story of ants as only a narrow slice of science, of interest chiefly to the researchers focused on it,” Wilson writes during one such stretch. “You would be quite right” (141), he agrees.
For those whose interests lie outside of entomology, these pages can be quite dry, though some autobiographical tidbits are bound to catch the interest of more general readers. Some letters provide fascinating accounts of how Wilson, together with colleagues and graduate students, contributed to increased awareness of the diversity of species on Earth, developed theories about particular ecosystems, and even coined the term “evolutionary biology” (224). Though the lessons for young scientists are sometimes more difficult to parse out in these letters, they do illustrate Wilson’s remarkable capacity for progressive scientific research. Regardless of how Wilson’s letters are organized, it is important to remember their contents almost exclusively reflect his own opinions and experiences and many of his conclusions consequently rely on generalizations. Mathematics may not have been critically important in Wilson’s career, but others would be wary to downplay its importance. Though Wilson attained much success by devoting much of his research to relatively unexplored topics, many of history’s most renowned scientists found success while racing to make a discovery before their contemporaries. In short, much of Wilson’s advice is not likely to apply to each of the young scientists he addresses.
Overall, Wilson provides a wealth of unconventional advice for students considering careers in the sciences. The letter form in which Wilson presents his uncommon yet incisive thinking takes on a personal quality akin to that of a mentor writing to a protégé. Wilson’s insights into scientific exploration, informed by six decades of working experience, overshadow the less captivating details of ant life to make for an interesting read for any aspiring researcher.
(2013). Albert Einstein quotes. Think-exist.com. Retrieved December 31, 2013, from http://thinkexist.com/quotation/most_people_say_that_is_it_is_the_intellect_which/12651.html
Wilson, E.O. (2013). Letters to a Young Scientist. New York:Liverlight.