Letters to A Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson- Book Review

In this book, Wilson has composed letters to potential and/ or current scientists. Wilson offers practical advice as well as encouragement in each letter, or chapter. The letters are divided into 5 sections, which are 1) The Path to Follow; 2)The Creative Process; 3) A Life In Science; 4) Theory And The Big Picture; and 5)Truth And Ethics. The theme of this entire book seems to be that if one aspires to be a scientist, passion will far exceed being “book smart” or having a high IQ. Here are some of Wilson’s best pieces of advice:

1.       Put passion ahead of training because decision and hard work based on passion will never fail you

2.      Real progress comes from writing notes in the field or doodling on paper in the office or struggling to explain something to a friend

3.      Look for a domain that is “sparsely inhabited” when looking for an area to study

4.      Better to know one thing in depth than a dozen things at their surface only

5.      Enjoy studying creatures under natural conditions

6.      All of great science has its roots in fantasy

7.      Commit a good part of your career to being an explorer

8.      Make time for full-time research even if you have to take sabbaticals and other paid leaves

9.       Uncontrolled experiments that are quick are often very productive

10.    Just get out there and do it!

Even though I do find this book helpful, there are two points that trouble me. One is point #4 above. Wilson mentions several times throughout how important it is to know one thing in depth. However, he seems to forget that what makes a good naturalist is that he or she usually very knowledgeable in many areas. I know several naturalists who I would call “expert generalists.”

Secondly, while I do appreciate Wilson’s honesty and candor, I do not quite understand why some great scientists feel the need to bring religion into the discussion just to bash it. In chapter 4, titled What is Science?, Wilson initially states that “the scientific method has been consistently better than religion beliefs in explaining the origin and meaning of humanity”(p.63).  I do not see any sources to show this. Also, how one would explain the meaning of humanity scientifically? He follows that statement by saying that when these creation stories have been tested in the real world “they have so far proved wrong, always wrong” (p.63). Again, there are no sources cited to back up this statement.  Wilson then closes this chapter by saying, “As a scientist, keep your mind open to any possible phenomenon remaining in the great unknown. But never forget that your profession is exploration of the real world, with no preconceptions or idols of the mind accepted, and testable truth the only coin of the realm” (p.67). This last statement is great advice to a scientist. When applied to religion and creation stories, however, Wilson would do well to listen to his own advice when it comes to being open-minded, having no preconceptions, and also bashing something that really cannot be scientifically tested in the first place. Being both “religious” and a young scientist are not mutually exclusive.

All in all, this book does offer great advice for anyone wanting to go into a field of science, especially as a researcher. There are nuggets of information that will keep one motivated.




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