Take My Advice

Letters to a Young Scientist
By Edward O. Wilson
Liveright, 2013, 256 pages

“Charming” is not a word one would normally associate with a book about how to be a scientist. But Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Letters to a Young Scientist, is indeed charming, as well as by turns inspirational and practical.

To cut to the chase: If you have children who are interested in a career in science, or if you know young people already launched on that pathway, buy them this book. It could change their lives. book cover thumbnail

Wilson’s central advice encourages students to “find their passion” in science and then follow it. Students are more likely to stick with and succeed in scientific studies in which they are very keenly excited and eager to learn. Wilson himself is a good example of the importance of enthusiasm in achieving professional fame. A biologist and naturalist at Harvard, Wilson’s scientific focus is ants. But his contributions to science include a range of original concepts – including development of theories about island biogeography, population biology, sociobiology, and evolutionary biology – that have become pivotal to our understanding of how the natural world and human behavior work.

In Letters to a Young Scientist, he writes of our need for young, enthusiastic scientists. He recommends ways to overcome hurdles, explains the process of science from a real-world perspective, and adds cautions a scientist needs to be aware of. Altogether, the book is like getting a series of letters from a wise uncle.

When I was in high school, we learned that the scientific method starts with a hypothesis, continues to experimentation, then matches results with expectations, to arrive (hopefully) at a conclusion. Pretty dry stuff. Wilson goes beyond this formula and uses several examples from his own experience to show how science really works.

The hypothesis stage, he says, is usually pretty messy but involves lively thinking. Wilson urges young scientists to hone in as specific a question as possible. He then shows how various experiments, from the complex to the very simple, can elucidate answers. He emphasizes the need to be very clever in setting up the experiments and encourages free flights of fancy. At the same time, he stresses that science is a discipline based on facts, built up over time.

Early in the book Wilson addresses a worry that is common to many aspiring scientists: What about the math? He says that you don’t necessarily need to be a master mathematician to work in science. If one is weak on math, Wilson has a very practical solution: Get a collaborator who’s good at math (as Wilson has done on several occasions).

Some of Wilson’s advice is contradictory and counterintuitive – and therefore very valuable. He suggests that scientists not get hung up on mastering one type of technology or machinery for their science. Why? Because technology is evolving so fast that a student may wind up intimately knowing the equivalent of the typewriter when everyone else is moving on to the equivalent of laptops.

Know your subject as well as you can, Wilson says. He explains that even low-level students can become world experts on niche subjects, as he did with ants early in his career. But, while becoming a specialist, avoid specialization. As noted earlier Wilson is one of those specialists who uses a single subject to elucidate much broader theories. He sets a good example and exhorts young scientists to keep their minds open. Focus is a key to success in science, he says, but a broader perspective will come with time.

Wilson further encourages young scientists to find mentors who can help them in their careers (noting several who helped him early on), and he stresses that young scientists follow up and build on previous work – a fundamental process of “standing on the shoulders of giants,” in Sir Isaac Newton’s famous phrase.

While Letters to a Young Scientist includes many examples of biological studies that Wilson is engaged in (he apparently spends a large amount of time messing with the minds of his ants), the book is just as inspirational for those interested in careers in physics, astronomy, chemistry, health sciences, or molecular biology. The book also would benefit many science teachers, with its tips on how to engage students and enliven lectures.

This is the kind of book I wish I had when I was starting out working on a science career (with a sharp early detour into environmental activism). It’s a gem that any young scientist will treasure.

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