E.O. Wilson's 5 Principles of Advice to Young Scientists

World-renowned scientist E.O. Wilson did not take up calculus until he was 32 years old. When he did finally tackle the subject, he sat next to undergraduate students taking his introductory biology class. He uses this anecdote as a way into his five principles of advice to young scientists, the first of which includes some encouragement to students intimidated by math.

I'll now proceed quickly, and before else, to a subject that is both a vital asset and a potential barrier to a scientific career. If you are a bit short in mathematical skills, don't worry. Many of the most successful scientists at work today are mathematically semi-literate....

Some may have considered me foolhardy, but it's been my habit to brush aside the fear of mathematics when talking to candidate scientists. During 41 years of teaching biology at Harvard, I watched sadly as bright students turned away from the possibility of a scientific career or even from taking non-required courses in science because they were afraid of failure. These math-phobes deprive science and medicine of immeasurable amounts of badly needed talent.

Here's how to relax your anxieties, if you have them: Understand that mathematics is a language ruled like other verbal languages, or like verbal language generally, by its own grammar and system of logic. Any person with average quantitative intelligence who learns to read and write mathematics at an elementary level will, as in verbal language, have little difficulty picking up most of the fundamentals if they choose to master the mathspeak of most disciplines of science.

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