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.
The longer you wait to become at least semi-literate the harder the language of mathematics will be to master, just as again in any verbal language, but it can be done at any age. I speak as an authority on that subject, because I’m an extreme case. I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama. They didn’t teach it before then.
I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students, little more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course I was giving on evolutionary biology. I swallowed my pride, and I learned calculus.
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.
Tags: advice, E. O. Wilson, mature students, TED talk
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