Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Letters to a Young Scientist

In Books on April 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I am a great admirer of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading biologists in the world.  He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (nonfiction), honorary curator in entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and one of the world’s leading authorities on ants.

Just glancing over at my bookshelf, I can see copies of his The Diversity of Life, Naturalist, In Search of Nature, Biophilia, and Journey to the Ants and the massive The Ants (both with Bert Hölldobler).  I’ve just finished reading his newest book, Letters to a Young Scientist (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), and I think it’s his best yet.

I suppose that “young” is a relative term.  To the octogenarian Dr. Wilson, my three-score-and-one years may qualify me.  As a new enthusiast to the world of entomology, particularly dragonflies, damselflies, and beetles, I quickly realized that I have too few years left in my life to learn much about such a wide variety of insects.  I recently wondered if I should try to “specialize” in some aspect of study, and Wilson’s book offers great advice and guidance to any “scientist”, of whatever age.

As I read, I highlighted passages that seemed to resonate with me, and quickly found that some pages contained more yellow markings than white background.  The following are short excerpts that I took to heart:

“…put passion ahead of training.  Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science…Obey that passion as long as it lasts [but] be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears.”

“Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake.”

“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…For every scientist…of whatever competence in mathematics, there exists a discipline in science for which that level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.”

“Look for a chance to break away, to find a subject you can make your own…where established experts are not yet conspicuously competing with one another…There are thousands of subjects…where it is possible in a short time to attain the status of an authority.”

(I especially like the following):  “…in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment…the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree:  bright enough to see what can be done, but not so bright as to become bored doing it.”

“Go where the least action is occurring.”

“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.”

I’ve just had my first scientific paper accepted for publication, and it’s a great thrill; however, as I mention in the report, it really contains nothing new, just previously-available data presented in a much more convenient and accessible format.  Wilson says:

“Original discoveries…are what count the most.  Let me put that more strongly:  they are all that counts.”

“You will make mistakes.  Try not to make big ones.  Whatever the case, admit them and move on.”

Excellent advice from a great man.  I’m seriously considering the “subject I can make my own.”  I recommend the book most highly.


Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1994). Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1990). The Ants. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (2013). Letters to a Young Scientist. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Wilson, E. O. (1996). In Search of Nature. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1994). Naturalist. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1992). The Diversity of Life. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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