Letters to a Young Scientist

These are some highlights from a talk that E. O. Wilson gave at TED.

Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes. It was put there by our distant ancestors who spread across the world, and it’s 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 scientifically trained people like you. In education, medicine, law, diplomacy, government, business and the media that exist today.

Our political leaders need at least a modest degree of scientific literacy, which most badly lack today — no applause, please. It will be better for all if they prepare before entering office rather than learning on the job. Therefore you will do well to act on the side, no matter how far into the laboratory you may go, to serve as teachers during the span of your career.

I found out that in science and all its applications, what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications. 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 products of downstream imagination leading to hard work, during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant. Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake.

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