‘The World Needs You, Badly,’ Edward O. Wilson Tells Young Scientists

BY Jenny Marder  March 26, 2013 at 12:07 PM EDT

Biologist Edward O. Wilson studies fire ants at Harvard University on Sept. 8, 1975. Photo by Hugh Patrick Brown/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Edward O. Wilson’s “Letters to a Young Scientist” arrived in the mail this week. Finding myself with a free minute, I picked it up and began reading it, and found myself immersed.

We learn a great many things about Wilson himself in this book: that as a teenager he wrestled and caught venomous snakes with his bare hands, that his great-great grandfather was a horse thief, that he first learned calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard.

A deliberate play on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” — he compares poetry and science more than once — this is teeming with advice for a young researcher, ranging from how theories are made and how to choose your field of research to how to build a butterfly net.

It’s a book about finding your passion for science and following it faithfully. About finding a discipline that you can call your own — preferably one that is sparsely inhabited, he says. “Be prepared mentally for some amount of chaos and failure,” he writes. “Daydream a lot.”

Mathematical skill is not essential, and neither is a genius IQ, he says. Of more importance is creativity, deep thinking, confidence, commitment and allegiance to the small, informal experiments.

He sums up elements of the book in this TED talk:

An excerpt from that speech:

“I found out that in science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability but it is imagination in all of its applications. The ability to form concepts with images of entities and processes pictured by intuition. I found out that advances in science rarely come upstream from the ability to stand at a blackboard and conjure images from unfolding mathematical proposition and equations. They are instead the product of downstream imagination leading to hard work, during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant. Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake. Of foremost importance is a thorough, well organized knowledge of all that is known of the relevant entities and processes that might be involved in that domain you propose to enter.”

QUICK BITES

  • Strange reaction after learning that the person behind a popular science site on Facebook is a woman.

  • From AsapSCIENCE: Can the snooze button do more damage than good? A look at what it does to the body’s chemical processes.

  • How changing the color of a mosquito’s eyes can bode well for stopping the spread of diseases like dengue fever.

  • Sir Tim Berners-Lee who invented the world wide web, Marc Andreesen who made the first popular browser and three others — Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf and Louis Pouzin — who invented the precursor to the Internet have won the 1 million pound Queen Elizabeth Prize for engineering. “The internet is the most complex engineering feat ever attempted,” said the judge. Financial Times reports.

  • Some science humor:

  • From NBC News: “After a week of down time due to a computer glitch, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is once again sending back pictures of its rocky Red Planet locale at Yellowknife Bay.”

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH