e.o. wilson


E.O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists

This is advice to come back to again and again. 

On charting new courses of inquiry, and finding inspiration in research and in learning, he tells us to march to our own drummer, and to not fall in with the army of the masses: 

"Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own."

And on our need to seed, stoke and feed our curiosity with as many varied influences and disciplines as we can:

"In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice.

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.”

Finally, bad at math? You’ll be happy to know that he says not to worry too much. You’ve got plenty of time. And you can always add a mathematician as a collaborator.

(via Brain Pickings)

In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need to not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice. Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.


In science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications.

—  E.O. Wilson's advice to young scientists, also applicable to just about any field, but most of all to the ethos of education itself.

Who knows what:

For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy. Both sides are wrong-headed

by Massimo Pigliucci

Whenever we try to make an inventory of humankind’s store of knowledge, we stumble into an ongoing battle between what CP Snow called ‘the two cultures’. On one side are the humanities, on the other are the sciences (natural and physical), with social science and philosophy caught somewhere in the middle. This is more than a turf dispute among academics. It strikes at the core of what we mean by human knowledge.

Snow brought this debate into the open with his essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1959. He started his career as a scientist and then moved to the humanities, where he was dismayed at the attitudes of his new colleagues. ‘A good many times,’ he wrote, ‘I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.

Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’

That was more than half a century ago. If anything, the situation has got worse. Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist, deconstructionist and radical feminist authors (the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense about science, clearly without understanding what scientists actually do…

(read more: Aeon.com)

You don’t need good mathematics to be a scientist

When biologist E. O. Wilson gave seemingly counterintuitive advice in his book Letters to a Young Scientist, it didn’t go down well – in the media at least

YOU don’t have to be good at mathematics, a high IQ may be a hindrance, and seek goals where others don’t to make for easy wins. Such advice from science giant E. O. Wilson could only cause upset.

In Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson offers searingly honest – and, some argue, incorrect – counsel. An article based on the book in The Wall Street Journal last month caused uproar among the mathematically minded.

In the article and the book he describes how many successful scientists are mathematically “semiliterate”, and reveals how, as a 32-year-old Harvard professor, he sat with undergraduates (some his own students) to learn calculus and achieve an undistinguished C. His aim is not to deter, but to encourage talented would-be scientists who aren’t naturals with numbers. The “haemorrhage of brainpower” must be staunched.

Controversy aside, Wilson’s plain advice is refreshing, and the book, with lovely vignettes of his career, should inspire. Many tips are pragmatic: don’t be lured by a field’s “glamorous aura”, prizewinning scientists and big grants, but “go where the least action is occurring”. Some tips seem like heresy but make sense: forget the hive mind and let the solitary brain wander and dream. A few are a little dubious, brutal even. “Real scientists do not take vacations,” Wilson decrees. Fine – but only if you have his career.

Overall, you could hardly find a better mentor than Wilson. Jaded mid-careerers struggling with lab politics, egocentric colleagues, hazy career paths in the face of cuts and few tenured positions may well disagree. But Wilson has advice for them, stressing how much of the world is yet to be explored by science. “You are needed,” he urges, reassuringly.

Skilfully and elegantly written, many of Wilson’s tips could also apply to other careers. As he says: “The scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truths, the poet is part scientist.”

This article appeared in print under the headline “My advice is…”


This Week’s Book Recommendation | Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O.Wilson

Amazon’s Review: “Edward O. Wilson has distilled sixty years of teaching into a book for students, young and old. Reflecting on his coming-of-age in the South as a Boy Scout and a lover of ants and butterflies, Wilson threads these twenty-one letters, each richly illustrated, with autobiographical anecdotes that illuminate his career—both his successes and his failures—and his motivations for becoming a biologist. At a time in human history when our survival is more than ever linked to our understanding of science, Wilson insists that success in the sciences does not depend on mathematical skill, but rather a passion for finding a problem and solving it. From the collapse of stars to the exploration of rain forests and the oceans’ depths, Wilson instills a love of the innate creativity of science and a respect for the human being’s modest place in the planet’s ecosystem in his readers. 21 illustrations”

My Review: “E.O.Wilson captures a scientist’s imagination in the most wondrous ways—reminding us, young or old, how we first fell in love with nature and the world around us. Whether it’s the universe, or our ecosystems, we are biologically driven to feel interconnected with all there is—and what better way to explore that than via the means of science?”

Only $11.68 on Amazon!

[Join Amazon Prime now as an Amazon Student (all you need is a .edu email) and get one year of FREE 2-day shipping!]


NEW! FREE! SCIENCE! (Or, E.O. Wilson Attempts to Educate the Entire World)


E.O. Wilson, famed ecologist and stunningly eloquent communicator, has recently published a biology textbook online, for free. Complete with gorgeous visuals and interactive multi-media tidbits, you can download it here.

Although some have had mixed feelings about the sample chapter published in 2012, I think it will be a great resource for the public looking to learn a bit more about biology, high school students interacting with concepts for the first time, and grad students who’ve had parts of their brains melted and can no longer remember what a nucleosome is. My only critique is that this should also be available to those who don’t enjoy the benefits of Apple products… 

However, I’m an advocate for anything that makes science fun, free, and widely available. This is one of those things! Good for you, E.O.Wilson, putting all those high school textbook publishers out of business. 


The Meaning of Human Existence

Edward O. Wilson

"The most successful scientist thinks like a poet — wide-ranging, sometimes fantastical — and works like a bookkeeper."

E.O. Wilson on how bridging science and the humanities can help us finally understand the meaning of human existence: