Edward O. Wilson - Letters to a Young Scientist

It’s embarrassing when you think something is going to be one thing but then it’s another thing, and it was so clearly always going to be that second thing that you must have been a crazy person to expect something else. 

I thought this would be like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, except with more science. Instead, it was advice from a very established, noteworthy scientist to a young scientist at the very beginning of his or her career. Less poetry, more practical. You know, exactly what the title says.

It didn’t change my life and it’s not super helpful advice for people not entering the world of science, but it’s well written and interesting. It became more interesting when, by happy coincidence, I visited the Panama jungle and got to watch a bunch of leaf cutter ants in action. In fact, I’d suggest that this book is more relevant for people who want to learn about ants than for non-scientists looking for general career advice. 

He encourages students to embrace their artistic side, to “put passion ahead of training.” He writes,

"Since so much of good science— and perhaps all of great science— has its roots in fantasy …”

And, 

"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 the creation 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.”

At the same time, he emphasizes hard work over genius:

“Accomplishments along the frontier and the final eureka moment are achieved more by entrepreneurship and hard work than by native intelligence..”

And, 

“The ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree: bright enough to see what can be done but not so bright as to become bored doing it."

And again, 

"To make discoveries in science, both small and important, you must be an expert on the topics addressed. To be an expert innovator requires commitment. Commitment to a subject implies sustained hard work.”

Wilson also lifts the veil on the inner workings (meaning, politics) of the academic world. He encourages young scientists to become competitors, to seek achievement and recognition. 

"Envy and insecurity are among the drivers of scientific innovation. It won’t hurt if you have a dose of them also,” he says. And then: "You’re only as good as people say you are.”

The latter is a theme (perhaps the dominant theme) of my next book ...