I recently read E. O. Wilson’s new book, Letters to a Young Scientist. Those of us who value everything that Wilson writes have read this book with eagerness. However, if I were a young scientist just getting started, or a student considering whether to become a scientist, this book would not give me clear guidance or inspiration. One of the best parts was the part quoted on the back cover: his advice to new scientists, “The world needs you—badly.”
But I did very much appreciate the three “archetypes” that Wilson presented: the stories or images by which scientific research resembles those that inspire people in all walks of life. Science is an adventure, and Wilson gives us three specific ways in which this is the case.
His first is “the journey to an unexplored land.” The same feeling that makes adventurers climb mountains, explore rivers, search for uncontacted tribes, even to look for Shangri-La also makes scientists look for new species, study the sea floor, search for life on other planets, and look for the fossil remains of our pre-human ancestors. I must testify that Wilson’s first archetype is true, for me, every day of my life.
His second is the “search for the Grail.” The same feeling that made people in earlier centuries look for the Holy Grail, the philosopher’s stone, or the fountain of youth also makes scientists look for the origin of life, try to create artificial life, try to create controlled hydrogen fusion, or try to explain dark matter and energy. This is the search for unity of explanation, as opposed to diversity of discoveries.
His third is “good against evil.” Heroes, champions, and martyrs of the past are reflected in the scientific world of the war against cancer, the conquest of hunger, the campaign against global warming, and the development of better forms of forensic DNA sequencing.
As I have frequently written, science is not just something that scientists do, but is a compelling adventure. And there are a few pages in the middle of Wilson’s small book that resonate strongly with this understanding.