E. O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists

Here’s a recent TED talk by E. O. Wilson, who has some advice for young scientists.

He begins by addressing young scientists in the audience with these words: “the world needs you badly.” I agree wholeheartedly, considering the state of scientific literacy in the world today, not just in developing and third world countries, but even in first world countries like America. I say this not only as a scientist, but also as a Christian who strongly believes that the scientific vocation is a divine calling (regardless of whether the scientist believes in God or not).

He then goes on to share a couple of key points which he refers to as ‘Wilson’s principles’:

Wilson’s Principle #1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration in mathematics and statistics, than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.

His advice is to not worry if one is short on mathematical skills. He raises a valid concern, that many potential scientists drop out or stay away from science because they are scared of mathematics. The result is that science loses badly needed talents. I find myself in similar situations many times, when I have shied away from a certain research problem involving hard maths, just because I’ve lost touch with my undergrad mathematics. He encourages budding scientists to “focus on what interests you deeply at your level of (mathematical) competence“, which ties in to his second principle:-

Wilson’s Principle #2: For every scientist working at any level of mathematical competence, there exists a discipline for which that level is enough to achieve excellence.

His third principle draws upon the military dictum, “March to the sound of the guns”, where he recommends the direct opposite.

Wilson’s Principle #3: March away from the sound of the guns, observe from a distance but do not join the fray, make a fray of your own.

He elaborates further, that “In selecting subject to conduct research, take a part of the chosen discipline that is sparsely inhabited. Judge opportunity by how few other students and researchers are on hand. Look for a way to break out. Find a field not yet popular, there is the quickest way advances are likely to occur. Study it enough to become an expert and the world authority on it.

Do I agree? This is where I find myself in, where my own research work is not very mainstream. In a sense, I AM a world authority when it comes to my own work. The question is, of course, how relevant and applicable this work is to other fields in astrophysics. There is another camp of researchers who believe in joining the fray. Of course, that’s where you’ll get the most citations to your work and perhaps generate the most impact.

Wilson’s Principle #4: In the attempt to make scientific discoveries, every problem is an opportunity, and the more difficult the problem, the greater will be the importance of the solution.

Is this always neccesarily the case? Maybe not, from my own experience.

Anyway, they’re all good tips to take on board, as I consider my own postdoctoral research path.


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