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Book Recommendations

E. O. Wilson’s “Letters to a Young Scientist”

I’ve been reading E. O. Wilson’s new book, Letters to a Young Scientist. It’s the latest addition to the list of “advice from older famous scientists” books, which also includes Peter Medawar’s similarly titled Advice To A Young Scientist and what is probably the grandfather of the entire genre, Ramón y Cajal’s Advice for a Young Investigator. A definite personal point of view comes across in this one, since its author is famously unafraid to express his strongly held opinions. There’s some 100-proof Wilson in this book as well:

. . .Science is the wellspring of modern civilization. It is not just “another way of knowing”, to be equated with religion or transcendental meditation. It takes nothing away from the genius of the humanities, including the creative arts. Instead it offers ways to add to their content. The scientific method has been consistent better than religious beliefs in explaining the origin and meaning of humanity. The creation stories of organized religions, like science, propose to explain the origin of the world, the content of the celestial sphere, and even the nature of time and space. These mythic accounts, based mostly on the dreams and epiphanies of ancient prophets, vary from one religion’s belief to another. Colorful they are, and comforting to the minds of believers, but each contradicts all the others. And when tested in the real world they have so far proved wrong, always wrong.

And that brings up something else about all the books of this type: they’re partly what their titles imply, guides for younger scientists. They’re partly memoirs of their authors’ lives (Francis Crick’s What Mad Pursuit is in this category, although it has a lot of useful advice itself). And they’re all attempts to explain what science really is and how it really works, especially to readers who may well not be scientists themselves.
Wilson does some of all three here, although he uses examples from his own life and research mainly as examples of the advice he’s giving. And that advice, I think, is almost always on target. He has sections on how to pick areas of research, methods to use for discovery, how to best spend your time as a scientist, and so on. The book is absolutely, explicitly aimed at those who want to make their mark by discovering new things, not at those who would wish to climb other sorts of ladders. (For example, he tells academic scientists “Avoid department-level administration beyond thesis committee chairmanships if at all fair and possible. Make excuses, dodge, plead, trade.” If your ambition is to become chairman of the department or a VP of this or that, this is not the book to turn to.
But I’ve relentlessly avoided being put onto the managerial track myself, so I can relate to a lot of what this book has to say. Wilson spent his life at Harvard, so much of his advice has an academic slant, but the general principles of it come through very clearly. Here’s how to pick an area to concentrate on:

I believe that other experienced scientists would agree with me that when you are selecting a domain of knowledge in which to conduct original research, it is wise to look for one that is sparsely inhabited. . .I advise you to look for a chance to break away, to find a subject you can make your own. . .if a subject is already receiving a great deal of attention, if it has a glamorous aura, if its practitioners are prizewinners who receive large grants, stay away from that subject.

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me is its take on two abilities that most lay readers would take as prerequisites for a successful scientist: mathematical ability and sheer intelligence in general. The first is addressed very early in the book, in what may well become a famous section:

. . .If, on the other hand, you are a bit short in mathematical training, even very short, relax. You are far from alone in the community of scientists, and here is a professional secret to encourage you: many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.

He recommends making up this deficiency, as much as you find it feasible to do so, but he’s right. The topic has come up around here – I can tell you for certain that the math needed to do medicinal chemistry is not advanced, and mostly consists of being able to render (and understand) data in a variety of graphical forms. If you can see why a log/log plot tends to give you straightened-out lines, you’ve probably got enough math to do med-chem. You’ll also need to understand something about statistics, but (again) mostly in how to interpret it so you aren’t fooled by data. Pharmacokinetics gets a bit more mathematical, and (naturally) molecular modeling itself is as math-heavy as anyone could want, but the chemistry end of things is not.
As for intelligence, see what you think about this:

Original discoveries cannot be made casually, not by anyone at any time or anywhere. The frontier of scientific knowledge, often referred to as the cutting edge, is reached with maps drawn by earlier investigators. . .But, you may well ask, isn’t the cutting edge a place only for geniuses? No, fortunately. 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. It has occurred to me, after meeting so many successful researchers in so many disciplines, that the ideal scientist is smart only in an intermediate degree: bright enough to see what can be done but not so bright as to become bored doing it.

By “entrepreneurship”, he doesn’t mean forming companies. That’s Wilson’s term for opportunistic science – setting up some quick and dirty experiments around a new idea to see what might happen, and being open to odd results as indicators of a new direction to take your work. I completely endorse that, in case anyone cares. As for the intelligence part, you have to keep in mind that this is E. O. Wilson telling you that you don’t need to be fearsomely intelligent to be successful, and that his scale for evaluating this quality might be calibrated a bit differently from the usual. As Tom Wolfe put it in his essay in Hooking Up, one of Wilson’s defining characteristics has been that you could put him down almost anywhere on Earth and he’d be the smartest person in the room. (I should note that Wolfe’s essay overall is not exactly a paean, but he knows not to underestimate the guy).
I think that intelligence falls under the “necessary but not sufficient” heading. And I probably haven’t seen that many people operate whom the likes of E. O. Wilson would consider extremely smart, so I can’t comment much on what happens at that end of the scale. But the phenomenon of people who score very highly on attempted measures of intelligence, but never seem to make much of themselves, is so common as to be a cliché. You cannot be dumb and make a success of yourself as a research scientist. But being smart guarantees nothing.
As an alternative to mathematical ability and (very) high intelligence, Wilson offers the prescription of hard work. “Scientists don’t take vacations”, he says, they take field trips. That might work out better if you’re a field biologist, but not so well for (say) organic chemistry. And actually, I think that clearing your head with some time off actually can help out a great deal when you’re bogged down in some topic. But having some part of your brain always on the case really is important. Breaks aside, long-term sustained attention to a problem is worth a lot, and not everyone is capable of it.
Here’s more on the opportunistic side of things:

Polymer chemistry, computer programs of biological processes, butterflies of the Amazon, galactic maps, and Neolithic sites in Turkey are the kinds of subjects worthy of a lifetime of devotion. 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.

I know exactly what he’s talking about here, and I think he’s completely right. Many, many big discoveries have their beginnings in just this sort of thing. Isaac Asimov was on target when he said that the real sound of a breakthrough was not the cry of “Eureka!” but a puzzled voice saying “Hmm. That’s funny. . .”
Well, the book has much more where all this comes from. It’s short, which tempts a person to read through it quickly. I did, and found that this slighted some of the points it tries to make. It improved on a second pass, in my case, so you may want to keep this in mind.

16 comments on “E. O. Wilson’s “Letters to a Young Scientist””

  1. marcello says:

    I am glad the author has included “polymer chemistry” (me new field) among scientific pursuits worth mentioning. You live you learn…

  2. Hap says:

    I wasn’t aware that science explained well the purpose for existence of what we should do. Science explains (far better than anything else) how things work and how we might use them for our own ends, has helped to give us time and resources to think about what we are and should be (with its brother technology), and tells us (sometimes) when our narratives don’t fit with our history or being, but it hasn’t really helped us to understand what we should be or do. I assume that the lack of support for religious claims when tested against physical reality may be used to imply that it may not be useful in determining our purposes, either, but that simply puts at square zero again.

  3. Hap says:

    Gold fever (to me, anyway), implies a single-minded exploration for an end, driven by desperation or greed and by possibilities but without understanding of the evidence for them. What Wilson seems to be talking about is intuition, where prior experience and knowledge lead one to think that something interesting might lurk nearby. It would seem to be rational – it is driven by evidence and curiosity and requires an understanding of the thing being seen – whereas gold fever seems almost the opposite of rational.
    Puts us at square zero again. Ack.

  4. lt says:

    @2 For some people with a scientific view of the world even the question “what is the purpose of life?” becomes meaningless, or about as meaningful as wondering about the purpose of Brownian motion: why did that particle move to the left? Purpose and meaning exist in our minds, they are not fundamental properties of the universe, although they sure do feel important…
    As to what we should do, the answer seems easy: keep experimenting (using the scientific method) and trying new things until satisfied with the results.

  5. “…a log/log plot tends to give you straightened-out lines…”
    My thesis involved the Avrami equation for modelling the crystallization kinetics of polymers. The plots were on (double-log)-log axes. Straightest damn lines you ever saw.

  6. Nisha Singh says:

    I think it’s interesting that one piece of advice is to stay in sparsely populated fields rather than glamourous ones. Does it cover how to cover funding issues in less glamourous fields, because I would be very interested in knowing that!

  7. Cellbio says:

    Pretty good stuff, and after getting into a religious discussion with my evangelical plumber yesterday, I think I’ll read this book to clear my head.
    However, I feel he misses the mark with the admonition to stay away from departmental committees and the thought to pick sparsely populated disciplines. While not invalid, this way of thinking draws a narrow focus on the single contributor mode of science, which is surely populated by great minds and profoundly insightful scientists such as theoretical physicists. For the vast majority of scientists, we work in organizations that demand we compliment our scientific skills with organizational and management skills, or our ability to make meaningful contributions is greatly diminished.
    In contrast, I advise every young scientist I encounter to do the opposite and entrench themselves in these committees, or there parallels in industry. The mamagement teams that set strategy, determine where and how to invest (or cut!) resources will exists and set directions that consumme hundreds of millions and determine the furutre of projects and careers. If not populated by Scientists, they will still exist and be populated by those with organizational skill. I feel strongly that as scientists, we have an obligation to embrace these roles and assure that science drives decisions.
    I do agree that no scientist should ever take a vacation, or better put, no really good scientist ever does, but rather uses time away to clear one’s head and think of new directions, spot red herrings, or or convert “gut feelings” to rational thoughts. However, to not spend cognitive energy to solving organizational limitations, or setting a tactical course to drive the success of an organization is no longer viable. This way of thinking belongs in parlor philosophy, not modern day pharma.

  8. Anon says:

    As a potential reader I would have been pretty annoyed had I bought this book for what I thought it was about and found out he goes off on unnecessary rants such as “religions vs. science” (Which many people think is a silly thing to pit against one another as there are many religions/interpretations that include science).
    It kind of makes me think less of the advice given and that the writer may be pushing their own agenda on other issues they speak about and aren’t offering genuine advice.
    That said, I think Derek’s comment about these books being
    implied topic=topic+memoir
    is a good description.

  9. Adam says:

    As Nisha pointed out, sadly doing science nowadays is no longer an intellectual game of scientists, but rather endeavors involving money, manpower, and time. A scientist may well want to pursue his/her ambition, even that’s the craziest thing one can ever imagine or the scarcest thing that no one has been interested before; but the funding situation may not support this ambition. Lacking scientific freedom is, in my view, a serious problem facing the science community, especially to young scientists, who do not have established fame and usually have hard time to convince the referees (who are sometimes old-fashioned fellows) the “feasibility” of their proposed research. As a result in many cases I have seen the opposite trend to the notion that the author promoted: young scientists (starting-up assistant profs and postdocs) are more willingly to devote themselves to the “hot fields” to secure fast and flashy publications.

  10. Chrispy says:

    It is sad but one of the pieces of advice I find myself giving to young folks is: “Do not get a PhD. If you want to do drug discovery, get an MD/PhD or an MD, but do not get a PhD only.” This does not hold for everyone — once in a while you’ll run into someone with a particular passion and no cares about a career. Usually, though, and understandably, youngsters want to study something with better career prospects than a string of postdocs.

  11. RKN says:

    Breaks aside, long-term sustained attention to a problem is worth a lot, and not everyone is capable of it.
    An important point. The ten-thousand-hour rule probably applies to success in science as it likely does in other endeavors.

  12. Samarium says:

    For the record re the science and religion quote: Here in the UK most of the Christians I’ve worked with in drug discovery believe that science and the Genesis accounts provide complementary accounts. In short, the genre of the Genesis accounts is very important and often overlooked. Try e.g. “Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?” by Denis Alexander.

  13. volund says:

    As others have already said:
    The advice to stay off committees etc, and to steer clear of trending “research areas” are the opposite of good advice — of course, doing these things will put you in the best position to do some good science, but only for that very short time until you are no longer able to work at all.

  14. sepisp says:

    Why does the “hard work” and “no vacations” apply only to scientists? I understand it’s not a good idea for a “yeah whatever” type of guy to be a scientist. But, this applies to a lot of other jobs too. For instance, could you imagine a “yeah whatever” type military officer? Or a medical doctor? Or a corporate officer? These workers are often highly paid, get as perks, allowances, overtime pay or extras, have good or extremely good job security, and are highly respected, so they have strong external incentives to work. Yet scientists are often denied such incentives, but are expected to work longer hours and deliver more. For a job, having to work in the absence of an incentive tells that it’s probably not a real job at all, and shouldn’t be done at all during office hours.
    Or, in other words, how universities and science in general could be attractive if there is a combination of high expectations, long hours, low pay and no career prospects? That’s a recipe for recruiting people who couldn’t get any other job in the field.

  15. 0rganiker says:

    Yeah, I don’t understand why religion even has to enter the picture. This sounds like the same thing that bogged me down when I was trying to get into “What Mad Pursuit.” I’ve never understood why scientists let themselves get bogged down in a debate that probably exists in the minds of fewer religious people than it does those secularists who keep bringing it up.
    I’m always torn between ignoring or chiming in to say, once again, who cares? Let’s get back to science.

  16. Dr. Evil says:

    Here’s some great advice that hasn’t been mentioned yet:
    1. Wait for a subordinate to come up with a great idea.
    2. Terminate that subordinates “at-will” employment.
    3. Steal that subordinates idea.
    4. Profit?
    5. Repeat steps.
    I’ve witnessed many “genius” scientists build their careers by using this simple algorithm.

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