science | April 17, 2013

Good Scientists Need Passion: Edward O. Wilson on NPR

"I believe it will help for me to start this letter by telling you who I really am," science speaker Edward O. Wilson opens in his new book, Letters to a Young Scientist. In the book, Wilson shares intimate personal accounts of how his past experiences led him to become a preeminent biologist, a Harvard Professor, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, and a global expert on ant colonies. And, he provides meaningful advice on how the potential scientists of the future can achieve success in the field, as well. He was recently a guest on NPR, where he discussed his love for insects, writing, and why passion is sometimes more important than intelligence as a predictor of success.

As he tells NPR, an early injury to one of his eyes meant that he couldn't play football as a young boy. However, the injury ended up being a blessing disguise, as it allowed him to immerse himself in other passions—such as developing a hands-on relationship with the squirmy insects that inhabited the Alabama landscape. "Bugs were the icky things that I could handle, that I could see, I could learn," he says. "And I absorbed myself totally in that, and enjoyed it enormously." In 1943, he recounts being recruited as a nature counselor at a Boy Scout camp. The experience was so exciting, he felt that it was "right up there with [being] a high school football quarterback."

That passion for discovery, he also argues, is a critical component to making it in the field of science. "Mere brightness can be valuable, but that's not what makes a successful scientist," he continues. "A successful scientist is a person that develops a passion for a subject. That leads to persistence. Persistence is extremely important." While he admits that team work and collaboration do lead to great advancements, he believes that exploring your interests in solitude, and learning about the world around you on your own first, acts as the spark plug for the creative process. It is a crucial time for the sciences, he also notes. That's why it's so important to cultivate the young minds of the future—who will be invaluable to new discovery. In this book, and when he takes to the stage, Wilson shares a wealth of fascinating research. He draws comparisons between humans and other species on Earth to give us a big picture view of the world around us. Wilson shows us that with a better understanding of the creatures on our planet—both in the present and in the past—comes an ability to predict where we are headed in the future.