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Letters to a Young Scientist (by Edward O. Wilson)

Written in


What to expect in this book?

This book can help you navigate your own path as you “pass through a life in science.”

So if you’re wondering whether you’re on the right path, read on!

And as the author tells you at the first part of the book, “The world needs you.”

Quotes from the book

First and foremost, I urge you to stay on the path you’ve chosen, and to travel on it as far as you can. The world needs you–badly. Humanity is now fully in the techno scientific age, and there is no turning back.

My confessional instead is intended to illustrate an important principle I’ve seen unfold in the careers of many successful scientists. It is quite simple: put passion ahead of training. Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science, or technology, or some other science-related profession. Obey that passion as long as it lasts. Feed it with knowledge the mind needs to grow. Sample other subjects, acquire a general education in science, and be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears. But don’t just drift through courses in science hoping that love will come to you. Maybe it will, but don’t take the chance. As in other big choices in your life, there is too much at stake. Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you.

But keep in mind that a strong mathematical background does not–I repeat, does not– guarantee success in science.

Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist at one level or another. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newtown dreamed, Darwin dreamed, you dream. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.

Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the corridor struggling to explain something to a friend, at lunchtime eating alone, or in a garden while walking. To have a eureka moment requires hard work. And focus. A distinguished researcher once commented to me that a real scientist is someone who can think about a subject while talking to his or her spouse about something else.

Principles to live by:

  1. It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians that it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.
  2. For every scientist, whether researcher, technologist, or teacher, of whatever competence in mathematics, there exists a discipline in science for which that level of mathematical experience is enough to achieve excellence.

If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan on raising it, but meanwhile know that you can do outstanding work with what you have.

An important step for you to take is to find a subject congenial to your level of mathematical competence that also interests you deeply, and focus on it.

I believe that other experienced scientists would agree with me that when you are selecting a domain of knowledge in which to conduct original research, it is wise to look for one that is sparsely inhabited. Judge opportunity by how few there are of other students and researchers in one field versus another.

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. Listen to the news coming from the current hubbub, learn how and why the subject became prominent, but in making your own long-term plans be aware it is already crowded with talented people.

March away from the sound of the guns. Observe the fray from a distance, and while you are at it, consider making your own fray.

In the search for scientific discoveries, every problem is an opportunity. The more difficult the problem, the greater the likely importance of its solution.

Better to know one thing in depth rather than a dozen things at their surface only.

First, early in the research a problem is identified, and then a solution is sought. (…) As an answer emerges, other phenomena are typically discovered, and other questions raised. The second strategy is to study a subject broadly, while searching for any previously unknown or even unimagined phenomena.

The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper. Keep in mind that innovators in both literature and science are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of the creation of both literature and science, everything in the mind is a story. There is an imagined ending, and usually an imagined beginning, and a selection of bits and pieces that might fit in between. In works of literature and science alike, any part can be changed, causing a ripple among the other parts, some of which are discarded and new ones added. The surviving fragments are variously joined and separated, and moved about as the story forms. One scenario emerges, then another. The scenarios whether literary or scientific in nature, compete with one another. Some overlap. Words and sentences (or equations or experiments) are tried to make sense of the whole thing. Early on, an end to all the imagining is conceived. It arrives at a wondrous denouement (or scientific breakthrough). But is it the best, is it true? To bring the end safely home is the goal of the creative mind.

Being bright, then, is just not enough for those who dream of success in scientific research. Mathematical fluency is not enough. To reach and stay at the frontier, a strong work ethic is absolutely essential. There must be an ability to pass long hours in study and research with pleasure even though some of the effort will inevitably lead to dead ends. Such is the price of admission to the first rank of research scientists.

The successful innovator is favored by a fortunate combination of talent and circumstance, and is socially conditioned by family, friends, teachers, and mentors, and by stories of great scientists and their discoveries.

The better emotions of our nature are felt and examined and understood more deeply during maturity, but they are born and rage in full during childhood and adolescence.

Archetypes, as scholars have noted, are commonly expressed by stories in myth and the creative arts. They are also powerfully manifested in the great techno scientific enterprise. It will make a difference in your own creative life if you are moved by one or more.

Archetypes (expressed by stories)

  1. The journey to an unexplored land.
  2. Search for the grail.
  3. Good against evil.

These several archetypes resonate up from the deepest roots of human nature. They are appealing and easily understood. They convey meaning and power to humanity’s creation myths. They are retold in the epic stories of history. They are the themes of great dramas and novels.

To make discoveries in science, both small and important, you must be an expert on the topics addressed. To be an expert innovator requires commitment. Commitment to a subject implies sustained hard work.

To make important discoveries anywhere in science, it is necessary not only to acquire a broad knowledge of the subject that interests you, but also the ability to spot blank spaces in that knowledge.

When things get bad enough, we junk the theory and create a new one. With each step, science moves closer to the truth–sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly. But always closer.

Entrepreneurial endeavor beyond the level f puttering creates difficulties other than the mere risk of failure. It will put you into a competitive arena for which you may not be emotionally prepared.

For you, if successful, there will be gentle competitors and ruthless competitors. There will be gossip and some protective secrecy. That should come as no surprise. Business entrepreneurs suffer when competitors beat them to the marketplace. Should we expect scientist to be different?

The great scientist who works for himself in a hidden laboratory does not exist. Therefore, be rigorous in reading and citing literature. Bestow credit where it is deserved, and expect the same from others.

Honest credit carefully given matters enormously. Recommending a colleague for awards or other forms of recognition is a relatively uncommon form of altruism when practiced among scientists. Even if it proves difficult, do not shrink from taking that step.

You will make mistakes. Try not to make big knes. Whatever the case, admit them and move on. A simple error in reporting or conclusion will be forgiven if publicly corrected

An outright retraction of a result will not cause permanent harm if done graciously, and especially with thanks to the scientists who reported the error with evidence and logical reasoning. But never, ever will fraud be forgiven. The penalty is professional death: exile, never again to be trusted.

If you’re not sure of a result, repeat the work. If you don’t have the time or resources to do so, drop the whole thing or pass it on to someone else. Of your facts are solid, but you’re not sure of the conclusion, just say as much.

If the result is worthwhile, others will either confirm or disprove what you think you found, and all will share credit. That’s not sloppiness. It’s just good professional conduct, true to the core of the scientific method.

This is how the book ends…

Finally, remember that you can enter a career in science above all in the pursuit of truth. Your legacy will be the increase and wise use of new, verifiable knowledge, of information that can be tested and integrated into the remainder of science. Such knowledge can never be harmful by itself, but as history has so relentlessly demonstrated, the way it is twisted can be harmful, and if such knowledge is applied by idealogues, it can be deadly. Be an activist as you deem necessary–and you can be highly effective with what you know–but never betray the trust that membership in the scientific enterprise has conferred upon you.