How to become a great scientific thinker, according to E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson, 2003 (Courtesy of Jim Harrison, PLoS, Wikimedia Commons)

E. O. Wilson, 2003
(Courtesy of Jim Harrison, PLoS, Wikimedia Commons)

E. O. Wilson, one of the great ecological thinkers of our time, is known for his major theoretical breakthroughs (for example, island biogeography theory and sociobiology) and major taxonomic breakthroughs as the leading authority on ants. His most recent book Letters to a Young Scientist offers advice on how to become a great scientific thinker and recounts his own scientific development.

When I picked up the book, I was curious how Wilson was going to give advice to a new generation of scientists. Although Wilson has advised numerous graduate students, certainly enough to have a sense of what generates success, he also is addressing an audience that is experiencing a dearth of opportunity and funding right now–much more so than when he forged his path into the field. Wilson acknowledges that navigating a scientific career is different and more competitive now than when he launched his career, and then he avoids the subject of the job market for most of the book. Rather than a book of practical advice, it is a mix of philosophical maxims about what makes a good scientist, combined with memoir-like accounts of his scientific development. Smattered among the maxims and memoirs are pointed encouragements (“Failure is essential.”) and big questions that could be an exciting foundation for new research.

Despite the fact that I did not find the book to have much worthwhile practical advice for a young scientist, I did find this short and easy read in turn thought-provoking, inspiring, and indeed helpful. True to form, E. O. Wilson tackles the question of what makes a good scientist from a broad perspective.

I reviewed the book in the September–October issue of American Scientist. You can read the review here.


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