It is a quite modest title that Edward O. Wilson has chosen for the book he published this month, Letters to a Young Scientist. As I began to read, I was expecting to find a list of more or less useful tips and tricks on how to become a scientist. What I instead found in this book is a deep personal reflection on what science really is and how scientists come to do it. Wilson provides an exceptionally clear account of what it is to devote one’s life to science and how the process can be experienced from the perspective of an individual scientist. Sure, the book lives up to its title and explains anything anyone would ever need to know to become a scientist, but it goes further in providing a view on science that is stunningly accurate. A science made by humans with emotions, biases, drives and personal histories. Wilson embraces it all in an account that should render jealous the philosophers who have previously tried to grasp its essence. Science is what you do when you put your boots on a rainy day and go into the forest to collect the worms that come out of the ground to classify them. Science is what you do when you observe something and wonder about the mechanisms that might have caused it. It doesn’t matter if you are professor at Harvard or a 13-year old kid in Alabama. Wilson has been both, but as illustrated by two photos of him collecting butterflies using a net in 1942 and in 2012, time has no eroding power on genuine curiosity.
The book achieves a colossal task in summarizing clearly and succinctly in simple principles how success can be obtained in science. Although Wilson has been interested in sociobiology and insects in particular, his principles apply just as well to any field of science, including brain research. He does so while avoiding a trap that many scientists fall into: there is no single way of becoming a scientist. Knowing mathematics will be important, but if you don’t, there are fields of science that require your other talents. I often hear from researchers to stick to fields of inquiry in which there are many investigators already, but Wilson differs:
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.
If you choose a field or a scientific question that no one has ever explored, you can become a leading expert even at a very young age, Wilson points out. Dedication will also be important: 60 hours of work per week. But how you spend those hours will be most important. You need to keep a moment for actual research. With all the paperwork, administration and teaching that University life imposes, it’s easy to lose sight of your primary goal. Research is at the top of your concerns. As a researcher and friend once told me : “If you’re bad at research, teach. If you’re bad at teaching, be an administrator“.
Being too intelligent or too perfectionist might get you into troubles. Science starts with very naive and imperfect attempts at understanding phenomenons, Wilson points out. He illustrates this with a story of him using a magnet to try to change the route of a line of ants. Result: nothing. But that’s how it’s done. Do not wait for the stars to be perfectly aligned, do not overtheorize if the experiment can be run at low cost, just go out and do it. If it works, then you’ll have to be more perfectionist and start collecting data more seriously. As another scientist once told me, in science there are thinkers and doers, and good scientists have to have a little of both talents.
Wilson also recommends not letting refusals discourage you. He tells this story of a student he had, Corrie Saux Moreau, who got refused on a collaboration project but instead decided to undertake the project by herself with much less resources and ended up publishing a very successful study. He tells an interesting story about him receiving a call from his colleague mentioning how dedicated this student was to ant research, and that she had tattoos of ants on her body to prove it. I do not recommend you to get tattoos, but this example illustrates how important it is to be able to demonstrate your dedication to your work using facts from your past.
As Letters to a Young Scientist unfolds, you will witness the story of a man who showed interest for scientific questions at least since he’s 10 years old and started collecting data not much later. His story is not unique, it is one that is somewhat common in the individuals who end up becoming good scientists, but to explain it in such an honest and light way is what makes this book so wonderful. Between the paragraphs spent describing how science works and the others telling stories about his childhood and teenage years observing insects, Edward O. Wilson is telling the story of a man entrenched with an exceptional sense of curiosity, a story which I find hard to describe as anything else than that of a born scientist.