You don’t need good mathematics to be a scientist
When biologist E. O. Wilson gave seemingly counterintuitive advice in his book Letters to a Young Scientist, it didn’t go down well – in the media at least
YOU don’t have to be good at mathematics, a high IQ may be a hindrance, and seek goals where others don’t to make for easy wins. Such advice from science giant E. O. Wilson could only cause upset.
In Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson offers searingly honest – and, some argue, incorrect – counsel. An article based on the book in The Wall Street Journal last month caused uproar among the mathematically minded.
In the article and the book he describes how many successful scientists are mathematically “semiliterate”, and reveals how, as a 32-year-old Harvard professor, he sat with undergraduates (some his own students) to learn calculus and achieve an undistinguished C. His aim is not to deter, but to encourage talented would-be scientists who aren’t naturals with numbers. The “haemorrhage of brainpower” must be staunched.
Controversy aside, Wilson’s plain advice is refreshing, and the book, with lovely vignettes of his career, should inspire. Many tips are pragmatic: don’t be lured by a field’s “glamorous aura”, prizewinning scientists and big grants, but “go where the least action is occurring”. Some tips seem like heresy but make sense: forget the hive mind and let the solitary brain wander and dream. A few are a little dubious, brutal even. “Real scientists do not take vacations,” Wilson decrees. Fine – but only if you have his career.
Overall, you could hardly find a better mentor than Wilson. Jaded mid-careerers struggling with lab politics, egocentric colleagues, hazy career paths in the face of cuts and few tenured positions may well disagree. But Wilson has advice for them, stressing how much of the world is yet to be explored by science. “You are needed,” he urges, reassuringly.
Skilfully and elegantly written, many of Wilson’s tips could also apply to other careers. As he says: “The scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truths, the poet is part scientist.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “My advice is…”
See now don’t let the daunting thoughts of “not being good at math” hold you back from being a badass Scientist saving the world and shit.
Eloquently spoken, I know…