Letters to a young scientist

How to do great science.

November 23, 2015 - 6 minute read -
blog book

Finally finished reading Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist known as “the father of sociobiology” and “the father of biodiversity”.

It is a motivational book. Some media articles picked it up as saying that math is not necessary for doing great science, which is one point made but by far not the overall emphasis or theme.

Features that make the book very motivational

I kept wondering what were the features that made these writings particularly catching. Here are some guesses:

Visual language

The language is extremely visual with detailed descriptions of the “exciting” moments of being a scientist. Some of the images that stuck in my head even long after reading the book are: the kicking of the ants legs, the crushing of a bee, going to islands and shoveling up a nest of ants. Another more concrete example is when telling the story of his former PhD student Robert W. Taylor when discovering a unique kind of ant (dawn ant), Wilson wrote:

“The night was chilly, and there seemed to be no good reason to search for any insects at all. But Taylor walked out anyway with flashlight in hand, just in case something might be active. A few minutes later he came running back, shouting, ‘I got the bloodybastard! I got the bloody bastard!’ [p.136]”

Sometimes it is combined with humor: “The ants couldn’t care less.[p.84]”

Direct speech

The second feature is that Wilson had a very unique way of speaking directly to the readers, especially when he singles the readers out to a small group of people.This creates an intimacy and closeness, uniqueness or even superiority, as if the person reading it belongs to some selected group. This combined with a vivid description can easily make the reader (especially those potential bright young scientist) resonate deeply. For example:

“Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist at one level or another. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newton 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. [p.37]”

Role models

The third feature that I noticed is that Wilson gives tons of role models. Starting from himself, his personal experience, and saying that “I’d like you to think, as I thought early in my career of older scientists, ‘If he could do it, so can I, and maybe better.’ [p.95]” Notice that this is exactly the direct speech that I mentioned earlier.

In addition, he depicted an array of other enthusiastic scientists, famous ones, like Darwin, Newton, but more importantly, ones that feel real, his own mentors, colleagues, collaborators, students.

“One day, during this lucubration, when a housemaid saw him staring at an anthill in the garden, she made reference to a famous prolific novelist living nearby when she said (it is reported), ‘Wht a pity Mr. Darwin doesn’t have a way to pass his time, like Mr. Thackeray. [p.37]”

“Newton, for example, invented calculus in order to give substance to his imagination. Darwin by his own admission had little or no mathematical ability, but was able with masses of information he had accumulated to conceive a process to which mathematics was later applied. [p.40]”

I particularly appreciate real-life stories, as in no other places can these behind the curtain stories be found. For example, Wilson told the story of Corrie Saux Moreau, which was used to illustrate the importance of audacity in research.

“She’s a fanatic on ants, wants to study them above all else. And she has tattoos of ants on her body to prove it. [p.143]” “There was no bravado in Corrie, no trace of overweening pride, no pretension. She was a quite, srene enthusiast. As it turned out, she was also an open, helpful friend o fellow students and others around her. [p.145]”

Wilson supported Corrie’s daring request to do a whole project by herself. The reasoning behind was, “I found the funds to set up her laboratory. And why not? An effort like this celebrates imagination, hope, and audacity. [p.146]”

Finally he also draws on other inspiring figures outside of science, such as mountain climbers and boxers, because high spirits of human endeavor are transferable across domains and are very effective.

“One of my favorite maxims is from Floyd Patterson, the light heavyweight boxer who defeated heavier men to win and for a while hold the heavyweight championship. ‘You try the impossible to achieve the unusual.’ [p.147]”

“Wilson told the story that when a journalist asked Tenzing Norgay, who in 1951, with Edmund Hillary, first summited Mount Everest, ‘How does it feel to be a great man?’ Tenzing responded, ‘It it the Everest that makes men great.’[p.109]” (Used to illustrate the importance of humbleness.)

Dynamic language

I think Wilson’s language is sophisticated beyond just visual, it is also very rhythmic, and employs a large and dynamic, unusual vocabulary (some even very relevant to biology). Embryonic, naïveté, fray, lucubration, stillborn, devotion bordering on fanaticism, are just some examples.

“Perhaps charmed by my naïveté, or perhaps recognizing an embryonic academic when they saw one, or both, I was welcomed by the faculty and given a stage microscope and personal laboratory space. [p.43]”

“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. [p.46]”

Qualities of a scientist

Overall I like a lot of the quotes about the qualities of being a good scientist.

  • Freedom

    “I never changed. Approaching the end of more than sixty years of research, I have been fortunate to have been given complete freedom in choosing my subjects. [p.95]”

  • Passion

    “If you choose a career in science, and particularly in original research, nothing less than an enduring passion for your subject will last the remainder of your career, and life. Too many Ph.D.s are creativity stillborn, with their personal research ending more or less with their doctoral dissertations. It is you who aim to stay at the creative center whom I will now specifically address. You will commit your career, some good part of it, to being an explorer. [p.77]”

  • Devotion

    “The most inspiring thing about Bill Brown was his devotion bordering on fanaticism – to science, to entomology, to jazz, to good writing, and to ants, in that rising order. [p.119]”

  • Commitment

    “Commitment to a subject implies sustained hard work. [p.149]”

  • “Ignorance”

    “Deep ignorance, when properly handled, is also superb opportunity. The right question is intellectually superior to finding the right answer. [p.177]”

  • “Poet”

    “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. [p.74]”

  • “Entrepreneurship”

    “It is entrepreneurship, the willingness to try something daunting you’ve imagined doing and no one else has thought or dared. It could be, for example, starting a project in part of the word neither you nor your colleagues have yet visited; or finding a way to try an already available instrument or technique not yet used in our field; or even more bravely, applying your knowledge to another discipline not yet exposed to it. [p.83]”

  • Introversion

    “There is also an introversion in the innovator that keeps him from team sports and social events…From early age he is a dreamer, not a doer. [p.92]”

Other notes

[p.38] Pioneers in science only rarely make discoveries by extracting ideas from pure mathematics. Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations on a blackboard are instructors explaining discoveries already made. Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. Eureka moments require 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 this or her spouse about something else.

[p.44] My good fortune came from an entirely different source, however. It was choosing ants in the first place… I had struck gold before the rush began. Almost every research project I began thereafter, no matter how unsophisticated (and all were unsophisticated), yielded discoveries publishable in scientific journals.

[p.55] You will have heard the words “fact,” “hypothesis,” and “theory” used constantly in the conduct of scientific research.