- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (April 15, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0871403773
- ISBN-13: 978-0871403773
- Product Dimensions: 4.9 x 0.9 x 7.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 124 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #101,022 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Letters to a Young Scientist 1st Edition
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*Starred Review* “What is this grand enterprise called science that has lit up heaven and earth and empowered humanity?” Wilson, a foremost authority on ants and biodiversity now in his eighties, has dedicated his life to this “culture of illuminations” in the field and laboratory and as a Harvard professor and best-selling writer. In his newest book, he offers candid guidance and profound inspiration to young scientists. “The world needs you––badly,” Wilson writes, explaining that our very survival depends on our learning enough about life on earth to halt our deleterious impact on the biosphere. “Put passion ahead of training,” Wilson advises, and don’t let a fear of math stop you. Hard work and entrepreneurship, he assures readers, are more important than “native genius.” Practical advice, reflections, and funny and dramatic stories of his own pioneering scientific adventures and breakthroughs make for an enlivening and affecting mixture of memoir, philosophy, and instruction that brings into focus the highest missions of science. Wilson’s celebration of creativity and discipline, love for the living world, and commitment to explicating its wonders and fragility will uplift every reader, no matter her or his calling. Warm, sage, and compelling, this concise and mighty book of wisdom and encouragement belongs in every library. --Donna Seaman
“The eminent entomologist, naturalist and sociobiologist draws on the experiences of a long career to offer encouraging advice to those considering a life in science… Glows with one man’s love for science.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“Edward O. Wilson, the evolutionary biologist who has studied social behavior among insects and humans, offers advice to aspiring researchers…A naturalist at heart, he plays down technology, math, even intelligence, proposing that a good scientist should be ‘bright enough to see what can be done but not too bright as to become bored doing it.’…delivers deep insights into how observation and experiment drive theory.”
- Jascha Hoffman, New York Times
“I want to express my gratitude. Thank you for reminding me and thousands of others why we became scientists. Your book Letters to a Young Scientist is first and foremost a book about passion and the delight of discovery....”
- Bill Streever, New York Times Book Review
“In this fund of practical and philosophical guidance distilled from seven decades of experience, Wilson provides exactly the right mentoring for scientists of all disciplines―and all ages… This is no pompous, deeply philosophical treatise on how great ideas develop. Wilson shares his simple love for ants and their natural history, revelling in them without hesitation. Everything else follows.”
“Inspiring… Ought to be on the shelves of all high school and public libraries.”
- Library Journal
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I should preface my review by acknowledging that I am a somewhat biased devotee of Wilson's in that I think he and I share much in common: I am a snake biologist (Professor Wilson was nicknamed "Snake" by his comrades as a teenager, as he went through a three-year stint as an amateur ophiologist [a fancy word for "snake biologist"] before he turned to studying ants), I'm a Southerner (He is too.), I'm an evolutionary biologist (He is too.), an Eagle Scout (So is he.), a science educator (yep, you guessed it...), and I am a proponent of conserving biodiversity (and Ed is the proverbial Patriarch and Anointed High Priest of that unifying concept in science). I mention these aforementioned biases not to share my résumé, but because this book bends to all of those, among others. And so, as I rightly guessed, Mr. Wilson would draw upon a lot of these shared interests in order to make his points and teach us. (This may be a downside for those of you who connect more readily with chemistry, physics, or astronomy examples. This book might have been more aptly called "Letters to a Young Biologist", but I think the title the publishers went with is the right one.)
I am also among Wilson's target readers -- young aspiring scientists, but more emphatically -- anyone who would love to be a success as a scientist. This book has helped me feel less daunted by the sometimes mistaken commonly perceived demands of science.
"Letters to a Young Scientist" is a clarion call for many MANY more people to join the ranks of natural scientists and to embrace a life of scientific investigation. Ed Wilson leaves no one with room for excuses to fail in this endeavor. He addresses the concept (or reality?) that if we humans are to survive the foreseeable future, we need to be a science-minded people.
Perhaps some of the most comforting aspects of the book are that Wilson belabors the point that you don't need to be a math wiz or even have a high IQ to be a great scientist. (Ed did not take Calculus until he was a 32-year-old professor at Harvard, and his grade was a C.) He divulges his own IQ as a modest "If I can do it without genius levels, you can too" admission. In fact, he argues that a high IQ can be something of a detriment to a scientific career.
Since many readers are likely to also be followers of Wilson's other works and thus, interested in biology, another book that I have found to have been written in a similar spirit of deep caring and empathy for the non-stereotypical and uninitiated scientist is Reading the Story in DNA: A Beginner's Guide to Molecular Evolution; it is written for the scientist interested in the whole organism, but who wants to understand how to DO and get started on molecular evolution research and techniques, WITHOUT all of the math. I think you'll love it.
Okay. Now, back to "Letters"...
Do I agree with everything written in this collection of sagely correspondence? No. One such point of contention for me was when Wilson admonished readers on how many hours they should expect to devote to teaching, administrative duties, research, etc if they choose an academic profession -- the part I didn't like was when he says [paraphrasing], "Only rest from work and seek diversion on weekends. Don't take vacations; real scientists don't take vacations. They go on field trips." As a herpetologist, I know of several friends and colleagues who use their vacation-time to take their families looking for snakes (for fun and research) in prime, wonderful habitat; they have formed rich memories that lasted a lifetime, and all family members seem to have enjoyed those times and remember them with fondness. I do hope to adopt that with my toddler. And perhaps Wilson's assertion is slightly tongue-in-cheek here, BUT, as a father, I'm also cautious to not subject my son in his vacation time to always doing dad's hobby or livelihood. And hey, I love Disney World, so my son won't know it's not totally for him. ;) But, once again, I digress...
If you have already read other works by Wilson, you will likely see some redundancy of ideas and stories in this book, such as his informal rules of biological evolution he has pointed out in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, for instance (i.e.. "For every unanswered problem or question in nature, there exists a species suited to solving that problem."). You will also hear of how he and MacArthur came up with the Theory of Island Biogeography. He uses his collection of examples and ideas as a teaching tool for how to think and create like a scientist. And keep in mind, this book is meant as an introductory rabble-rouser, in the best sense -- as a shot in the arm for the passionate tenderfoot -- so some review of Wilson's life's work is expected, albeit it is in a fresh, new light.
And there are new nuggets of wisdom gleaned from over 60 years as an Ivy League researcher. He has offered two different ways that convergently lead to the formation of a scientist: (1) the problem-solver who often employs models -- organismal or otherwise -- to get to the bottom of unanswered questions, and (2) the naturalist who loves and finds pleasure in his or her favorite species or phenomenon for the sake of its mere existence, who tries to learn all that is currently known on the topic, and is naturally led to questions. Again, since Wilson is drawing on his own experience, he mostly explores the latter pathway to sciencedom.
Overall, I would highly encourage young and old scientists to read this book. It is, as the title suggests, non-technical, and is suitable for high schoolers and mature-minded middle schoolers. (And older.) E.O. Wilson can indeed offer advice on most aspects of doing science, from encouraging "quick and sloppy" experiments on a whim (some of his own produced no noteworthy results for him at all; others paid handsome dividends beyond reasonable hope), the importance of daydreaming and fantasizing about science, taking the responsibility of being a world expert on a subject (which he asserts is often easier and quicker than most people think), to devising testable and successful frameworks of conceptual knowledge that we call scientific theories.
I've a very sorry track record when it comes to finishing books, but I read this one in three or four days quite easily. It's a quick read, even for this notoriously slow, easily distracted reader. The main idea of this book is that you don't need to fit the stereotype of a scientist (e.g. math wiz, genius, poor communicator [I added that last one]) in order to be a good scientist. AND if you don't fit the stereotype, you are exactly what the world and scientific community at large really lacks. Ed Wilson says that the world needs your unique talents, badly. I agree. Happy reading! I would recommend this book as a gift to young people. Buy a copy, read it yourself, and then give it away.
But there is more, much more: a non-technical introduction into the nature of the grand enterprise Prof. Wilson calls "science" and I, a scholar in the humanities "the quest for truth." As far as I could see, the only major difference between his methods and mine is that natural science allows you to make experiments whereas history does not. That is an important difference indeed--but not one, as Prof. Wilson makes clear, that is unbridgeable or should stand in the way of cooperation.
Finally, at one point in his career Prof. Wilson was almost thrown out of Harvard for expressing his belief that genetics have something to do with human behavior in society. I have had similar problems in my own university, and therefore appreciate the courage he had shown.
Bravo. Please keep writing.