The Sunday Conversation
5:16 am
Sun April 14, 2013

Advice On Passion, Brilliance And Bugs In 'Letters'

Originally published on Sun April 14, 2013 11:04 am

Edward O. Wilson has spent a lifetime as a scientist, a teacher and a writer. In his scientific career, he's a preeminent biologist and a global expert on ants; as a teacher, he has been a professor at Harvard for almost six decades; as a writer, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his nonfiction, which presents science to a general audience.

Now, Wilson has combined all three of his life's passions in a new book, Letters to a Young Scientist. Inspired by Rainier Marie Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Wilson's book collects lessons from his lifetime of science and education and translates them into his accessible prose. As the title suggests, the book consists of letters addressed directly to young people who have chosen to enter a career in the sciences. The letters are personal, even intimate — "I believe it will help for me to start with this letter by telling you who I really am," the first letter begins — but contain big arguments about creativity, career-building and how to succeed.

Wilson joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about his childhood love of creepy-crawly things, his theory of "optimal medium brightness" and why he believes creativity starts in solitude.


Interview Highlights

On why, as a child, he liked bugs and snakes

"You are talking about what I call the little things that run the earth. As a boy, I injured an eye in a fishing accident — when I was only 8 years old. So I only have one eye — it's pretty good vision — but that kept me out of football, which was a good thing, and it kept me from being a bird-watcher. And yet what I had in the beautiful state of Alabama was a beautiful environment. And bugs were the icky things that I could handle, that I could see, I could learn. And I absorbed myself totally in that, and enjoyed it enormously."

On how snakes helped him win friends and earn a cool reputation

"The year, let me tell you, was 1943. Every male, 17 and over, who could be recruited was now in the service. I was 14, normally I would not have been recruited as a counselor for the Boy Scout camp, but they needed a nature counselor, and so they asked me to be the nature counselor. And I realized that these kids were mesmerized by snakes. And whenever one found a snake, then the cry would go up, 'Snake! Snake! Snake!' And I would come running. ...

"I was right up there with a high school football quarterback."

On why the moderately bright, rather than the brilliant, are best equipped for science

"Mere brightness can be valuable, but that's not what makes a successful scientist. A successful scientist is a person that develops a passion for a subject. That leads to persistence. Persistence is extremely important. Now ... what happens to the ones with IQs of 170 and 180 and so on? Aren't they the ones who do the really brilliant work, the great advances, the game-changing? I don't think so. Maybe they do. But much more likely what they do is join a Mensa society and possibly work for the IRS or write columns in newspapers. Our medium-IQ person does not find his education that easy, but maybe for the very very bright, in their education, found it a little too easy. So they were not mentally tough. That's just one person's perspective, but it's the one I've developed."

On why solitude, not brainstorming in groups, is the source of creativity

"I'll tell you what I think about the creative process, how it happens. It happens when there is one person eager to do something special. They want to do something really new, and so they begin to think through what would be the meaning about some sort of odd observation: What can I make out of it? And then they get the germ of an idea, and at this point they're starting to talk to others. Well, I've drawn in, for example, mathematicians, and I'm poor at math. And then from then on we were partners. Now you've got the beginning of a team. Now you've got group think, there's no question about it, group think is the second stage in the creative process in science."

On what advice he'd give a student deciding between science and the humanities

"I don't like to be competitive with the humanities. For one thing, there will come a time in the future of the species, when science and technology are so advanced where we begin to say, 'Can we really make something like a human in a robot?' And then we're going to ask the question, 'What are we?" Well, what we are, are our emotions, and our history of all our emotions, and that is how we will define humanity. And for that reason I think we should keep the humanities as nourished and growing and appreciated as possible. So this is an extremely long-winded answer, but what do you expect when you invite a Harvard professor onto your program?

"And I do then want to answer this by saying [to] this young lady, 'What do you really love? What do you really want to be doing?' And I don't want to hear her say, 'Well, you know, I was really wanting to go into Italian Renaissance art but I don't know whether there are going to be jobs and so on, and then I think maybe I should go into something more like science or technology,' and I would say to her, 'Stick with Italian Renaissance art. But just be the best at it, and you'll have a wonderful life.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

E.O. WILSON: We are now in a technoscientific era. It's not going to go back. And the country's future depends upon a appreciation of science and technology by the public.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is E.O. Wilson. He's a professor emeritus of biology at Harvard. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes and he is viewed as one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. And he's on a quest to inspire the next generation of scientists. He's written a book to try to do just that, aptly titled "Letters to a Young Scientist." Wilson is part of a national debate about rethinking how educators approach science. For example, he says stellar proficiency in math isn't as important as a lot of people think it is to a successful science career. This past week, a group of educators from around the country released a new set of guidelines for science education. They're called the Next Generation Science Standards, and the big idea is to teach science with less rote memorization and more hands-on experience. That's exactly how E.O. Wilson started his career. When I spoke with him recently, we started with his childhood. Our Sunday Conversation with E.O. Wilson. You grew up in Alabama and you liked bugs and snakes. Why?

WILSON: I'm appalled at the way you put that question.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Forgive me, but I do fall into that camp of not being so keen on the bugs and snakes.

WILSON: That's all right. You have been infected with the icky virus.

MARTIN: I know.

WILSON: Probably, a spider startled you or something. But you are talking about what I call the little things that run the Earth. As a boy, I injured an eye in a fishing accident. So, I only have one eye - it's pretty good vision - but that kept me out of football, which was a good thing, and it kept me from being a bird-watcher. And yet what I had in the beautiful state of Alabama was a beautiful environment. And bugs were the icky things that I could handle, that I could see, I could learn. I absorbed myself totally in that, and enjoyed it enormously.

MARTIN: You start the book off with a story of how when you were a kid snakes actually helped you win some friends. Can you explain?

WILSON: Oh, sure. The year, let me tell you, was 1943. Every male, 17 and over, who could be recruited was now in the service. I was 14. Normally, I would not have been recruited as a counselor for the Boy Scout camp, but they needed a nature counselor, so they asked me to be the nature counselor. And realized that these kids were mesmerized by snakes. And whenever one found a snake, then the cry would go up, snake, snake, snake, and I would come running. And I would pick it up.

MARTIN: And people thought you were cool.

WILSON: Very, very. I was right up there with the high school football quarterback.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I would like to talk about your book. You make a number of interesting assertions. One of them is something you call the rule of optimal medium brightness. You're saying that people who are just sort of bright are actually better equipped for science than the super geniuses. Why is that?

WILSON: You know, mere brightness can be valuable, but that's not what makes a successful scientist. A successful scientist is a person that develops a passion for a subject. That leads to persistence. Now, what happens to the ones with IQs of 170 and 180 and so on? Aren't they the ones who do the really brilliant work, the great advances, the game-changing? I don't think so. Much more likely what they do is join a Mensa Society and possibly work for the IRS or write columns in newspapers. Our medium-IQ person does not find his education that easy, but maybe for the very, very bright, in their education, found it a little too easy. So, they were not mentally tough. That's just one person's perspective, but it's the one I've developed.

MARTIN: I'd like to talk about another somewhat controversial idea that you have posited. And this is about how we are most creative. Big companies - Facebook, Google, Yahoo - are advocating kind of big, open spaces. These corporations kind of believe that creativity comes from this idea of group-think. You disagree.

WILSON: I'll tell you what I think the creative process, how it happens. It happens when there is one person eager to do something special. They want to do something really new, and so they begin to think through what would be the meaning about some sort of odd observation: What can I make out of it? And then they get the germ of an idea, and at this point they're starting to talk to others. Well, I've drawn in, for example, mathematicians, and I'm poor at math. And then from then on we were partners. Now, you've got the beginning of a team. Now, you've got group-think, there's no question about it. Group-think is the second stage in the creative process in science.

MARTIN: Harvard is a liberal arts university, so you get students in there taking a range of courses. If you were confronted by a young college sophomore who was very gifted, very smart and was contemplating pursuing higher education or a career even in science but also mulling over maybe going into some other liberal arts field, how do you make the case for science to a young person?

WILSON: I don't like to be competitive with the humanities. For one thing, there will come a time in the future of the species when science and technology are so advanced where we begin to say can we really make something like a human in a robot? And then we're going to ask the question what are we? Well, what we are, are our emotions, and our history of all those emotions. And for that reason I think we should keep the humanities as nourished as possible. So, this is an extremely long-winded answer, but what do you expect when you invite a Harvard professor onto your program? And I do then want to answer this by saying that this young lady, what do you really love? What do you really want to be doing? And I don't want to hear her say, well, you know, I was really wanting to go into Italian Renaissance art but I don't know whether there are going to be jobs and so on, and then I think maybe I better go into something more like science or technology. And I would say to her, stick with Italian Renaissance art. But just be the best at it, and you'll have a wonderful life.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Edward O. Wilson is a professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University. His new book is called "Letters to a Young Scientist." He joined us from the studios at Harvard. Professor Wilson, it's been such a pleasure. Thanks so much.

WILSON: I thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.