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Book Review

‘Letters to a Young Scientist’ by Edward O. Wilson

Two-time Pulitzer winner Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor emeritus of entomology, shares insights on his lifelong love of science — and ants.

Alex Harris

Two-time Pulitzer winner Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor emeritus of entomology, shares insights on his lifelong love of science — and ants.

On July 3, 2006, the Explorer’s Club, joined by the American Museum of Natural History and several other organizations, conducted a “bioblitz” in New York City’s Central Park. On that day, 350 experts roamed the park, seeking to identify as many species as possible. They found 836 species, including 303 plants and 101 animals. The latter category included 78 moths, 9 dragonflies, 7 mammals, 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and 2 tiny caterpillar-like tardigrades, the first ever discovered in Central Park. Five days later, samples of soil and water were collected to be analyzed for bacteria and other micro-organisms. Marine biologist Sylvia Earle dived into a lake in the park, found a snail floating by, but couldn’t be sure “if it was a resident or if it was introduced by the nearby restaurant as an escargot.”

The bioblitz is Edward O. Wilson’s ideal “happening.” A professor emeritus of entomology at Harvard and the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, “On Human Nature” (1979) and “The Ants” (1991, coauthored with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson is energized by the realization that “very few places remain on Earth that are not seething with species of plants, animals, or micro-organisms.” In “Letters to a Young Scientist” he draws on six decades of field work, theory making, and teaching to share his passion for science. Beautifully written, richly detailed, and practical, his little book should command the attention of anyone who is contemplating a career in ecology or biodiversity — or who “sometimes daydreams like a scientist.”

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Wilson’s lifelong love affair with ants is infectious. King Solomon was right, he demonstrates, when he instructed, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise.” Wilson re-creates fascinating experiments in which he discovered how an ant knows when another ant is dead; and when he mixed two species of fire ants by chilling them and switching their queens. In Australia, when he was “twenty-five and charged with energy and optimism,” he writes, his footsteps “turned huge meat ant nests into boiling masses of angry red-and-brown, viciously biting defenders. Was I afraid? Never. I loved every minute of it.”

In five sections that deal with science as a profession, the creative process, a life in science, theory, and ethics, Wilson offers provocative advice to young scientists. “Take a subject . . . that interests you and looks promising,” he suggests, “and where established experts are not yet conspicuously competing with one another.” Wilson, after all, chose taxonomy, which was (and still is) dismissed as a field akin to stamp collecting. If young scientists are weak in mathematics, Wilson indicates, they should avoid physics, chemistry, and micro-biology, but can find happiness — and success — in a “vast array of scientific specialties.” Even if they need it, researchers should not fall in love with technology. And, most tellingly, scientists should work 60-hour weeks, “take weekends off for rest and diversion, but no vacations.”

Wilson insists that “there is only one way to understand the universe and all within it, and that is science.” He is dismissive of religion, thinks social scientists are conceding more and more to “the ultimately biological nature of our species,” acknowledges that moral reasoning, aesthetics, and the creative arts “are forged independently of the scientific worldview” only to claim that the humanities “limit thought to that which is human, and in this one important sense are trapped within a box.”

Most humanists, I suspect, won’t see this limitation as a trap. Some may question as well Wilson’s apparently absolute confidence in science and its methods. Nonetheless, along with intellectually curious people everywhere, they will enjoy and profit from “Letters to a Young Scientist.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
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