E.O. Wilson's Five Principles for Budding Scientists


The Harvard researcher and author holds court on breadth, getting help with math, and stepping away from the blackboard.



E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, thinks humanity is on the cusp of a new golden age in scientific discovery. Current trends in science and technology predict the doubling of progress every 15 years, Wilson told audiences at TEDMED, a three-day conference on health and medicine in Washington, D.C.

"So swift is the velocity of the technoscientific revolution," said Wilson, "so startling in its twists and turns, that no one can predict its outcome, even a decade from its present moment."

He's no stranger to big thinking. Wilson was the subject of an Atlantic profile late last year headlined, "E.O. Wilson's Theory of Everything."

At a time when demand for scientists is at an all-time high, Wilson has a handful of ideas to encourage people to join the quest for knowledge. Here are his five principles for budding scientists.

Breadth is as important as depth. Study widely.

Keep your eyes lifted and your eyes turning. The thirst for knowledge is in our genes. It was put there by our distant ancestors who spread across the world, and it is never going to be quenched. To understand and use it -- sanely -- as a part of the civilization yet to evolve requires a vastly larger population of trained people in education, medicine, law, diplomacy, government, business, and media.

March away from the guns.

"You may have heard the military dictum for the gathering of armies: 'march to the sound of the guns.' In science the exact opposite is the case: march away from the sound of the guns! March away from the sounds of the guns. Observe from a distance, but do not join the fray. Make a fray of your own. Once you have settled on a specialty and a profession you can love, and you've secured opportunity, your potential to succeed will be greatly enhanced if you study enough to become an expert."

There's an ideal organism to study for every interesting problem.

"For every problem in every discipline of science there exists a species or entity or phenomenon ideal for its solving. And conversely ... there exist important problems, the solution of which are ideally suited. Find out what they are. ... It's up to you to have found an interesting question -- a problem, perhaps, that others have toyed with but you focus on and then ... to select the ideal organism for its solution."

Step away from the blackboard.

"In science and all its applications, what is crucial is not technical ability, but it is imagination -- 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 product of downstream imagination leading to hard work, during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant."

If you need math, help will come.

"It is far easier for scientists, including medical researchers, to acquire the needed collaboration in mathematics and statistics than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations. It is important in choosing the direction you take in science to find the subject at your level of competence that interests you deeply and focus on that."

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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