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


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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.

It's an interesting piece of advice coming from Wilson, because some of his biggest achievements came from theories that involved a healthy serving of math. One of his most influential books, The Theory of Island Biogeography, included a mathematical formula that predicted a loss in biodiversity as the size of a habitat shrinks. Wilson made a lot of progress early on by teaming up with accomplished mathematicians and statisticians who could help him.

In his most recent TED Talk, the entomologist draws on his own experiences to offer advice from a book he is currently writing, Letters to a Young Scientist. With science and technology expanding and becoming increasingly complex at breakneck speeds, he says the fields need more young and creative minds. “So let me begin by urging you, particularly you on the youngsters' side, on this path you've chosen, to go as far as you can,” he says. “The world needs you, badly. Humanity is now fully into the techno-scientific age. There is going to be no turning back.”

I've included his five principles of advice below. You can learn more about each by watching his entire TED Talk.

It is far easier for scientists, including medical researchers, to require needed collaboration in mathematics and statistics than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.

For every scientist, whether researcher, technician, teacher, manager or businessman, working at any level of mathematical competence, there exists a discipline in science or medicine for which that level is enough to achieve excellence.

March away from the sound of the guns. Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own. Once you have settled on a specialty, and the profession you can love, and you've secured opportunity, your potential to succeed will be greatly enhanced if you study it enough to become an expert.

In the attempt to make scientific discoveries, every problem is an opportunity, and the more difficult the problem, the greater will be the importance of its solution.

For every problem in a given discipline of science, there exists a species or entity or phenomenon ideal for its solution. And conversely, for every species or other entity or phenomenon, there exist important problems for the solution of which, those particular objects of research are ideally suited. Find out what they are. You'll find your own way to discover, to learn, to teach.

For more on E.O. Wilson, read Howard French's feature, “E.O. Wilson's Theory of Everything.

To learn more about island biogeography, check out David Quammen's book, The Song of the Dodo.

—Joe Spring