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Letters To a Young Scientist Paperback – Illustrated, April 8 2014
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Edward O. Wilson has distilled sixty years of teaching into a book for students, young and old. Reflecting on his coming-of-age in the South as a Boy Scout and a lover of ants and butterflies, Wilson threads these twenty-one letters, each richly illustrated, with autobiographical anecdotes that illuminate his career—both his successes and his failures—and his motivations for becoming a biologist. At a time in human history when our survival is more than ever linked to our understanding of science, Wilson insists that success in the sciences does not depend on mathematical skill, but rather a passion for finding a problem and solving it. From the collapse of stars to the exploration of rain forests and the oceans’ depths, Wilson instills a love of the innate creativity of science and a respect for the human being’s modest place in the planet’s ecosystem in his readers.
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.—Nature
Inspiring… Ought to be on the shelves of all high school and public libraries.—Library Journal
About the Author
- Publisher : Liveright; Illustrated edition (April 8 2014)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0871403854
- ISBN-13 : 978-0871403858
- Item weight : 148 g
- Dimensions : 11.43 x 1.57 x 18.42 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #263,346 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from Canada
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Wilson's accomplishments over a life devoted to science make his ideas worth considering. In a career of over 50 years as a biologist, most of which he spent teaching at Harvard, he has written prolifically both for lay readers and for scientists. He has founded the disciplines of sociobiology as well as the discipline of biogeography. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes, the Crawfoord Prize for ecology, and many other awards. He is also the world's leading authority on ants. In the "Letters", for example, he discusses a work that he wrote over an eight-year period late in his career: "Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant Hyperdiverse Ant Genus" (2003). This is obviously a work for specialists.
It is unsurprising that Wilson relies on his own experience for much of the advice he gives in the Letters. His most important advice comes at the outset of the book and is reiterated many times. Wilson emphasizes the importance of passion and desire to a budding scientists. He writes:
"My confessional instead is intended to illustrate an important principle I've seen unfold in the careers of many successful scientists. 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. But don't just drift through courses in science hoping that love will come to you. Maybe it will, but don't take the chance. As in other big choices in your life, there is too much at stake. decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you."
Regardless of a person's career goal and regardless of the individual's stage in life, passion for what one does is critical for meaningful activity. Wilson illustrates his advice with discussion of his own life, beginning with his youthful fascination with biology and nature, including snakes, butterflies, and ants. He is a person who did with his life what he was born to do. After recounting experiences of his boyhood searching for insects, Wilson writes, "I've gone into this boyhood story to make a point that may be relevant to your own career trajectory. I have never changed."
Wilson also discusses the importance of the entreprenurial spirit even for a field such as science with includes ambition, the ability to engage in many projects of various sizes at the same time, ambition to succeed, and the willingness to take risks. He again illustrates entrepreneurship in science with many examples from his own experience as a biologist and from his experience working with other scientists.
Besides advice which has application beyond young people and beyond science, Wilson has much to say about scientific work itself. He describes the relationship between science and math, the tension between individual creativity and teamwork in science, the importance of mentorship, and much more. Wilson makes much of the importance of creativity, likening scientific accomplishment to the work of a poet, informed with background and hard work.
I remain most impressed with Wilson's patient lifelong work learning about ants. He writes that when he began his career, there were perhaps a dozen specialists on ants in the world. From studying ants, Wilson broadened his focus to include ecology, evolutionary biology, sociobiology, and consilience -- synthesizing knowledge from various fields. But ants remained central. Wilson writes to prospective scientists of his massive study of "Pheidole" (a large genus of ants) that I mentioned above:
"You may think of my story of ants as only a narrow slice of science, of interest chiefly to the researchers focused on it. You would be quite right. But it is nonetheless at a different level from an equally impassioned devotion to, say, fly fishing, Civil War battlegrounds, or Roman coins. The findings of its lesser grails are a permanent addition to knowledge of the real world. They can be linked to other bodies of knowledge, and often the resulting networks of understanding lead to major advances in the overall epic of science."
Wilson's Letters offer a great deal to young people interested in devoting their lives to science. The book also taught me, and will teach other non-scientific readers, much about science, scientific discovery, and the love of science. In its discussion of passion and commitment, exemplified in Wilson's life, the book has a universal message for people at all stages of life.
Top reviews from other countries
The penultimate letter deals with the shoulders of giants. In it, I would like to have read some recognition of W D Hamilton who solved Darwin's main difficulty with altruism and thereby laid the evolutionary foundations for cooperation and thence for sociobiology. But it is too easy to criticise a book an author did not write, and Wilson surely has good reason for not mentioning Hamilton.
In the same vein and in the last letter `The Scientific Ethic', I would like to have read Wilson's thoughts on the most serious ethical dilemma not just scientists but the whole world faces, and it is the fact that every two seconds five more babies are born than people die. That is roughly equivalent to the population of Mobile, AL, doubling every 22 hours, or New York every 38 days, or London every 36 days. Please, Professor Wilson, turn your mind to this while you still have energy, but be not so gentle.
I bid all young scientists who read these letters to stand on Wilson's shoulders with confidence that they will not sag for they support a mighty mind and cover a warm and very human heart.