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E.O. Wilson on Becoming a Great Scientist

The biologist E.O. Wilson, now of Harvard University, made his first and largest splash by releasing his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which made the controversial claim (at the time) that human nature has a strong biological basis.

His work brought into public consciousness the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, where Steven Pinker, Robert Trivers, and others have made huge strides in contributing to our understanding of why we are who we are.

Wilson's newest book is a slim volume called Letters to a Young Scientist. I picked it up off the bookshelf blindly, and after reading it, I was struck by its unusual tone: It's part memoir, part advice journal, part pop-science (in the good, “effectively explains things to lesser mortals” way, not the derogatory way), which means the book works on multiple levels.

Science Isn't Just Lab Coats and Blackboards 

One of the triumphs of the book is Wilson's ability to explain to a non-scientist (or, as he intended, a future scientist) the way science is actually conducted, and what it takes to be a good scientist. Some of these explanations are counterintuitive to our popular understanding:

Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations written on blackboards are instructors explaining discoveries already made. Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodle paper, in the corridor struggling to explain something to a friend, at lunchtime, eating alone, or in a garden while walking. To have a eureka moment requires hard work. And focus. A distinguished researcher once commented to me that a real scientist is someone who can think about a subject while talking to his or her spouse about something else.

Because of the need for extreme focus over a long period (or as William Deresiewicz put it — “concentrating and sticking to the problem“), there's a lot of grinding in scientific work. But Wilson describes it as a treasure hunt:

To reach and stay at the frontier (of scientific thought), a strong work ethic is absolutely essential. There must be an ability to pass long hours in study and research with pleasure even though some of the effort will inevitably lead to dead ends. Such is the price of admission to the first rank of research scientists. They are like treasure hunters of older times in an uncharted land, these elite men and women.

Echoing Charlie Munger, Wilson posits that outside of the day-to-day work required to become an expert, big opportunities in science and life must be seized:

Once deeply engaged, a steady stream of small discoveries is guaranteed. But stay alert for the main chance that lies to the side. There will always be the possibility of a major strike, some wholly unexpected find, some little detail that catches your peripheral attention that might very well, if followed, enlarge or even transform the subject you have chosen. If you sense such a possibility, seize it. In science, gold fever is a good thing.

Think Like a Poet

Later, Wilson expands on this idea of deep expertise combined with imagination and playfulness being the essential features of great scientific thought. This idea of deep focus plus playfulness leads to new connections and innovative thought, an idea we've come across before as combinatorial creativity.

One way to cultivate this, says Wilson, is to think like a poet.

Make it a practice to indulge in fantasy about science. Make it more than just an occasional exercise. Daydream a lot. Make talking to yourself silently a relaxing pastime. Give lectures to yourself about important topics you need to understand. Talk with others of like mind. By their dreams you shall know them…The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works as a bookkeeper. Keep in mind that innovators in both literature and science are basically dreamers and storytellers.

Use Ignorance 

Echoing thoughts by Richard Feynman, Wilson says we need to spot and harness our ignorance to make scientific progress:

To make important discoveries anywhere in science, it is necessary not only to acquire a broad knowledge of the subject that interests you, but also the ability to spot blank spaces in that knowledge. Deep ignorance, when properly handled, is also a superb opportunity…To search for unasked questions, plus questions to put to already acquired but unsought answers, it is vital to give full play to the imagination. That is the way to create truly original science.

No Genius Needed

One problem that makes young people afraid of getting into a scientific field, even though they are interested in making discoveries about the world, is they feel they aren't that good at math, or even that smart. But Wilson tackles both of these.

If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan on raising it, but meanwhile know that you can do outstanding work with what you have. Such is markedly true in fields built largely upon the amassing of data, including, for example, taxonomy, ecology, biogeography, geology, and archaeology. At the same time, think twice about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include the greater part of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties within molecular biology. Learn the basics of improving your mathematical literacy as you go along, but if you remain weak in mathematics, seek happiness elsewhere among the vast array of scientific specialties.

Wilson says he himself only started learning calculus at the age of 32 when he was already a well known and practicing scientist, and although it wasn't easy, he did it. He points out that his IQ was measured at 123, and he knows two Nobel prize winners who scored in the 120s. Charles Darwin was roughly 130. It doesn't take genius to make scientific progress:

Work accomplished on the frontier defines genius, not just getting there. In fact, both accomplishments along the frontier and the final eureka moment are achieved more by entrepreneurship and hard work than by native intelligence. This is so much the case that in most fields, most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment…

Passion Above All

When it comes to choosing what to study and what to pursue, Wilson makes a familiar recommendation: go where the competition is low. (This principle works in much of life.)

You have heard the military rule for the summoning of troops to the battlefield: “March to the sound of the guns.” In science the opposite is the one for you…

March away from the sound of the guns. Observe the fray at a distance, and while you are at it, consider making your own fray.

And above all, you need to love what you study. If you start with that principle, your odds of success are best:

It is quite simple: put passion ahead of training. Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science, or technology, or some other science-related profession. Obey that passion as long as it lasts. Feed it with the knowledge the mind needs to grow. Sample other subjects, acquire a general education in science, and be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears….Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you.

Check out Letters to a Young Scientist – you can read it in an afternoon but you'll probably think about it for a lot longer.