Brain Pickings

E.O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists

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“What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications.”

In his recent TEDMED talk, legendary Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, regarded as one of the greatest scientists alive, offers a taste of his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Scientist. (A play, of course, on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.) Wilson touches on a number of points previously explored as essential in science and other creative and intellectual endeavors — the benefits of balancing expertise with broad, cross-disciplinary curiosity, the importance of embracing failure and the unknown, the role of intuition and the imagination, the idea that we’re wired for science.

In time, all of science will come to be a continuum of description, an explanation of networks, of principles and laws. That’s why you need to not just be training in one specialty, but also acquire breadth in other fields, related to and even distant from your own initial choice.

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes.

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In science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications. The ability to form concepts with images of entities and processes pictured by intuition. I found out that advances in science rarely come upstream from an ability to stand at a blackboard and conjure images from unfolding mathematical propositions and equations. They are instead the products of downstream imagination leading to hard work, during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant. Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.

Wilson’s most recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth (public library), came out in April and is absolutely fascinating, even if only for the unusual fact that Wilson changes his mind about a central element of evolutionary theory — a living testament to the idea that “real science is a revision in progress, always.”

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