Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

I found Letters to a Young Scientist (2013) by Edward O. Wilson to be fascinating and quite outside of my usual purview. 

Mr. Wilson, biologist, author, and Pulitzer Prize winner (twice) writes twenty letters to those aspiring to a life in the sciences. Each letter/chapter advises or accentuates, explains or clarifies, encourages or cautions.
He stresses that scientists are needed in every field and that there is room for everyone. There are new discoveries to be made in the laboratory, the jungles, the oceans, and even the frozen Antarctic. 

Just a handful of dirt from one's backyard yields much life to be studied and observed. Mr. Wilson writes that he got started on his distinguished career by collecting and studying insects found in the park near his boyhood home in Mobile, Alabama. For some reason, he decided to study ants and that decision has led him all over the world nosing about ant hills and kicking over leaves and twigs in search of the seemingly infinite number of different species of the little picnic spoilers.

The stories of his own expeditions and studies add to the guidance he has to impart and offer the reader a glimpse into his passion for his chosen path.

He asserts that a strong work ethic is absolutely essential, offers insights into the creative process of research, and gives sound advice on proper behavior in the conduct of research and publication. Be fair. Be true. 

His thoughts on choosing a career in science can be taken as advice for almost any field as indeed he compares the creativity of the scientist to that of the poet:

The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper. Keep in mind that innovators in both literature and science are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of both literature and science, everything in the mind is a story. There is an imagined ending, and usually an imagined beginning, and a selection of bits and pieces that might fit in between. In works of literature and science alike, any part can be changed, causing a ripple among the other parts, some of which are discarded and new ones added. One scenario emerges, then another. The scenarios, whether literary or scientific in nature, compete with one another. Some overlap. Words and sentences (or equations or experiments) are tried to make sense of the whole thing.

These brief letters and autobiographical sketches gave me an insight into a career that I have never considered following.  I have to admit that I admire Mr. Wilson's perseverance in the study of and his passion for the little warriors we know as ants.


  1. This sounds truly inspiring, Belle. I've just started Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior. The passage you site here reminds me a bit of her. I think she is a biologist, and she writes such wonderful books, both fiction and non. There's a Canadian writer, whose name escapes me at the moment, who also blends both fields.

    Did you know there are masters programs in creative non-fiction? There are a few contemporary women writers, Rebecca Skloot coming to mind, that are writing wonderful books in such engaging ways. Now, I've rambled. Letters to a Young Scientist is on my list.

    1. Hi Penny. Yes, I am familiar with the creative non-fiction programs. We have one offered at a university here and a friend of mine is a graduate. I don't think she is doing much with her MFA though. A lot of hard work!

      "Letters" was enjoyable abd I really only read it to shake my mind up a bit after living in the world of Angela Thirkell for three novels. I do enjoy a bit a scientific reading every now and then. It expands the mind...