For someone like me, it’s not really a question of did I like Letters to a Young Scientist by famed biologist, Dr. Edward O. Wilson. It wasn’t even about whether it was inspiring or not. Instead, it was a trip down a memory lane, lined with the specters of every negative thought I ever had, and every criticism about my ability to comprehend math and sciences.
I wanted to be a scientist when I was younger. I remember very clearly the drawing I made when I was first asked the question, and it was a woman (well, stick figure) holding vials and pouring them into other vials. That was what my idea of science was. I was inspired by Sherlock Holmes (well, The Great Mouse Detective, really) to mix things together and figure out answers. Later, I wanted to be a marine biologist, and then an astronomer.
It is that final desire that causes me the most pain, as I still have a strong desire to study the stars as best I can. I read Carl Sagan and I watch Brian Cox shows. I follow NASA and SETI’s twitter, and I try to understand things that people told me I couldn’t because I got C’s in math when I didn’t like the teacher, and D’s in all science classes that weren’t physics. The sad part is that I believed them.
So, when I read Letters to a Young Scientist, it’s not so much a letter to me telling me I can become a scientist (as it is intended to be), it’s that I could have become a scientist if someone had just told me these things earlier.
But that’s a good thing, right? I may be apart of the lost generation, but the next one doesn’t have to suffer the same fate.
Not every letter is meant for everyone, though, if it seems a bit daunting to read over 200 pages of “Get into science! No, really! It’s cool!” It’s very easy to see what letters may apply to you via the table of contents, though I think more than a fair share of us will go straight to “Mathematics”, were Dr. Wilson explains why math is not necessarily a prerequisite to understanding science. Like humanities as much as you like science? Try “The Creative Process”.
Each letter has an theme and it’s that science is the undiscovered country. Go forth and explore! Find a passion and be passionate. Know that all work in science contributes to a greater good somehow, even if you don’t know how. They are good messages and one that all people should read.
The one true downside to this book is that it is meant for the nineteen or twenty-year-old who is just about to go to school, but is written in a prose that doesn’t lend itself very well to inspiration. Having read dense academic texts for the better part of my 20s, I found myself having brief flashbacks as I struggled to comprehend some of the basic scientific principles he put forward. While in comparison to scientific papers, it is practically pulp fiction, it still has a heavy academic air to it that I’m not sure will inspire in the way that it really should.
Still, it’s a good book, and well-needed as new college students look to start their next semester in August.