Book club discussion on Letters to a Young Scientist

Two Wednesdays ago a group of us FOSEPers met to discuss the book Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson. As the title indicates, the book is a collection of letters in the form of chapters, written so that each chapter can be read separately without losing much context. In each chapter, Wilson touches on a specific aspect of science and intersperses his ideas with many examples taken from his own experiences. Those examples range from those as a young child from Alabama out collecting insects to those as a young scientist in training to those as a mentor of young scientists, but they all involve ants in one way or another. Wilson’s enthusiasm for ants definitely comes through in his writing, as well as in the small illustrations that start each chapter. Some chapters touch on scientific advice, such as why it’s good to work on projects that no one else is looking, while others discuss science as an endeavor, as why science may be a more encompassing approach to seeing things than the social sciences or humanities.

Even as a grad student coming close to the end of my studies, I found some of his advice helpful, such as his suggestion to try many low-cost experiments to identify scientific questions that give interesting answers. I was also intrigued by his insistence that you don’t need to do well in math to do well in science. I’ve found that in one way or another math shows up, and it largely helps to be comfortable with doing math. But the more I read the book, the more I felt that the book was aimed at someone younger than myself. I think that the reason was in the lack of treatment of the difficulties one encounters as a scientist. Some difficulties crop up within his experiences, but they all seem to have a solution or fix. It makes for a boring read to hear about all the difficulties one encounters as a scientist, but because this is a book meant for budding scientists, who are bound to run into many road blocks along the way, a chapter on the failures and difficulties of a scientist would have been instructive. Unlike a word problem, science rarely produces neat and tidy answers, if it produces any conclusive answers. But apart from portrayal of science, which felt a little too rosy, it was interesting to read the kinds of things that a scientist thinks about sharing with young scientists. It was especially refreshing to read how enthusiastic and curious Wilson still remains about ants after a life spent studying them.

The book also had me thinking about what got me into science and kind of words of advice I would give a younger version of myself who was thinking of becoming a scientist. Would I talk about what it’s like to go through day-to-day as a scientist? Or would I talk about the grand questions that excite me? The book’s given me a chance to step away from the paper writing and data analysis of day-to-day activities to ask myself what it is to be a scientist and why I am in science, and for that, I’m grateful for having read it.

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