Book Review: Letters to a Young Scientist

A delightful little book from a true Master.

Dr. Edward O. Wilson is one of my favorite scientists and science writers and he is equally gifted in both careers. About a year ago I reviewed his book “The future of life” and I briefly explained why I like his work so much.

I think that the title of his latest book, “Letters to a young scientist” is a tad inaccurate for three main reasons, the first one because some of his advice and wisdom can be used by scientists in general, not just the “young” (whatever that means… (:-)…). Also, as others have pointed out, a significant portion of the book is framed in an autobiographical way. Furthermore, other reviewers have pointed out that the book is not really about advice as opposed as about “…what worked for E.O. Wilson” and I kind of see it, but I also believe that the book goes beyond that. It is a wonderful read.

The first part, “The Path to Follow” is mostly about choosing a scientific career, with an emphasis in the biological sciences. The prologue itself gives a reassuring (if you are in the sciences) “…you know what you are doing; congratulations!” that powerfully drives the message in just a few pages (I will let you read it by yourself). He then makes the case for making a passion for science as being more important than formal training, at least while choosing a specific path.

Dr. Wilson does not shy away from controversy in his books, and this one is no exception. He has gotten a lot of flak for Chapter 2, titled “Mathematics”. Some people (predictably, mathematicians) took offense at the main message of the chapter, which seems to be that to become a good, even great scientist you do not need to have any special ability to master advanced math. I think I know why his statement was so much maligned, he was simply misinterpreted, as I do not believe that he meant math in itself, like calculus, statistics, etc., but rather the really advanced math that is non-negotiable for physics and allied disciplines, and he is the first to state so. He even talked about the advantages of associating with mathematically-oriented people.

Moreover, he narrated how he took a calculus course as a tenured professor alongside some of his own students form other courses. Let me tell you, the admission in itself, as well as the act, takes guts. I am a tenured professor myself and I vowed to never take another exam for as long as I lived when I passed my PhD qualifying examinations… (:-)…)

Still, some mathematically-minded people were predictably offended and agitated for Wilson’s statements and went on the sadly predictable first line of attack by emphasizing that essentially “…Wilson is in his 80s so he is old, his ideas are old and must be wrong…” attitude, an attitude which by the way, I find despicable. Personally I think that Wilson is right, when you read his words appropriately and objectively.

This “controversy” for some reason reminded me of a time at Cornell when I attended a lecture by Dr. Roderick MacKinnon, who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ion channel structures. In the Q&A session someone offered (what I found) an intricate “math-technical” organic chemistry comment and asked MacKinnon for his opinion. He honestly replied that he could not comment on it because he was not aware of that specific technical matter since he was trained as a physician, not as a PhD. The questioner looked appalled, almost in disbelief that such a “Heathen” (my words) in terms of “hard” chemistry won the Nobel. This was a misguided and plainly wrong attitude which serves to illustrate Wilson’s point. Great discoveries are not the exclusive territory of mathematics. Don’t get me wrong, I like math, I am just not very good at it either and with Darwin, I wish I knew more, but again, well, Wilson said it best…

Parts II and III are my favorite parts of the book simply because they are so inspiring! In Part II, “The Creative Process” among other things he talks about what science is and scientists as explorers. Part III “A life in Science” explores the role of mentors and risk in a scientific career, as well as explicitly stating the importance of “knowing your craft”. This latter advice is the one piece of advice I wish somebody had given me some 30 years ago. Also, he mentions in passing his “consilience” ideas on how the sciences can influence all aspects of human nature, including the arts, a concept that I am not so sure about, but only time will tell.

In my opinion the weakest part of the book is Part IV “Theory and the Big Picture”. With the exception of Chapters 15 and 16, the rest of the chapters are even more autobiographical that advice-centered and describe some theories, not what a theory is per se.

Part V “Truth and Ethics” contains my very favorite sentence of the book (page 248): “Original discoveries, to remind you, are what count the most. Let me put that more strongly: they are all that counts. They are the silver and gold of science”.

Read this book. Please… (:-)…

letters to a young scientist mech.indd
Picture credit: Liverlight & W.W. Norton

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE
http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/wil2bio-1
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/04/e_o_wilson_is_wrong_about_math_and_science.html
http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/04/19/science-vs-math/

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7 Comments

  1. interesting discussion–I have always thought that those who are gifted scientists would have better innate analytical skills (e.g. maths, logic, and spatial reasoning). That being said, these scientists perform science in an idiosyncratic manner. I believe understand that Prof. Wilson may be just of many in that gifted category.

    And, I do plan to read the book. Interesting–thanks.

  2. I like the MacKinnon story. Sounds like that question in the Q&A session was more about the questioner than the object of the question! MacKinnon’s response impresses me — the temptation is to try to act like you know more than you do but he resisted. Probably another good lesson for a not-so-young scientist like myself …

  3. I didn’t read this book, but I read Consilience, Creation, and, of course, Sociobiology (I know, I read a textbook). Did you read any of those? Do you think this book, Letters, will add to what I’ve already learned from the others?

    ” Great discoveries are not the exclusive territory of mathematics. ” Oh yes, Truth. Math can’t even explain Itself.

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