90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
E.O. Wilson On ‘Letters To A Young Scientist’

Bees disappearing. Cicadas coming out. A new generation of scientists coming up. We’ll talk with super-biologist E.O. Wilson about our future and nature.

Scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winner E.O. Wilson joined On Point live in studio. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winner E.O. Wilson joined On Point live in studio. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Super biologist, naturalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner E.O. Wilson is as big as popular figures come in science these days.  Father of sociobiology. Master of ants.  Marvelous communicator.

He’s 83 now.  But once, E.O. Wilson was just an Alabama kid crazy about snakes and bugs.  He followed a passion for the natural world around him into a life in science.

Now he wants to show others — young people — the way. The country needs you, he says to the young.  The world needs you.

Up next On Point:  “Letters To A Young Scientist” from the great E.O. Wilson.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guest

E. O. Wilson, biologist, naturalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. A leading expert on ants, he is known as the father of sociobiology. Wilson is professor emeritus and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard University. His latest book is “Letters To A Young Scientist.”

Excerpt

Excerpted from Letters To A Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson. Copyright © 2013 by Edward O. Wilson. With the permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

FIRST PASSION, THEN TRAINING

Book jacket for "Letters To A Young Scientist" by E.O. Wilson. (Courtesy W.W. Norton)

(Courtesy of W.W. Norton)

I believe it will help for me to start with this letter by telling you who I really am. This requires your going back with me to the summer of 1943, in the midst of the Second World War. I had just turned fourteen, and my hometown, the little city of Mobile, Alabama, had been largely taken over by the buildup of a wartime shipbuilding industry and military air base. Although I rode my bicycle around the streets of Mobile a couple of times as a potential emergency messenger, I remained oblivious to the great events occurring in the city and world. Instead, I spent a lot of my spare time — not required to be at school — earning merit badges in my quest to reach the Eagle rank in the Boy Scouts of America. Mostly, however, I explored nearby swamps and forests, collecting ants and butterflies. At home I attended to my menagerie of snakes and black widow spiders.

Global war meant that very few young men were available to serve as counselors at nearby Boy Scout Camp Pushmataha. The recruiters, having heard of my extracurricular activities, had asked me, I assume in desperation, to serve as the nature counselor. I was, of course, delighted with the prospect of a free summer camp experience doing approximately what I most wanted to do anyway. But I arrived at Pushmataha woefully underaged and underprepared in much of anything but ants and butterflies. I was nervous. Would the other scouts, some older than I, laugh at what I had to offer? Then I had an inspiration: snakes. Most people are simultaneously frightened, riveted, and instinctively interested in snakes. It’s in the genes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the south — central Gulf coast is home to the largest variety of snakes in North America, upward of forty species. So upon arrival I got some of the other campers to help me build some cages from wooden crates and window screen. Then I directed all residents of the camp to join me in a summer — long hunt for snakes whenever their regular schedules allowed.

Thereafter, on an average of several times a day, the cry rang out from somewhere in the woods: Snake! Snake! All within hearing distance would rush to the spot, calling to others, while I, snake-wrangler-in-chief, was fetched.

If nonvenomous, I would simply grab it. If venomous, I would first press it down just behind the head with a stick, roll the stick forward until its head was immobile, then grasp it by the neck and lift it up. I’d then identify it for the gathering circle of scouts and deliver what little I knew about the species (usually very little, but they knew less). Then we would walk to headquarters and deposit it in a cage for a residence of a week or so. I’d deliver short talks at our zoo, throw in something new I learned about local insects and other animals. (I scored zero on plants.) The summer rolled by pleasantly for me and my small army.

The only thing that could interrupt this happy career was, of course, a snake. I have since learned that all snake specialists, scientists and amateurs alike, apparently get bitten at least once by a venomous snake. I was not to be an exception. Halfway through the summer I was cleaning out a cage that contained several pygmy rattlesnakes, a venomous but not deadly species. One coiled closer to my hand than I’d realized, suddenly uncoiled, and struck me on the left index finger. After first aid in a doctor’s office near the camp, which was too late to do any good, I was sent home to rest my swollen left hand and arm. Upon returning to Pushmataha a week later, I was instructed by the adult director of the camp, as I already had been by my parents, that I was to catch no more venomous snakes.

E.O. Wilson (Alex Harris, courtesy W.W. Norton)

E.O. Wilson looks at ants. (Alex Harris, courtesy of W.W. Norton)

At the end of the season, as we all prepared to leave, the director held a popularity poll. The campers, most of whom were assistant snake hunters, placed me second, just behind the chief counselor. I had found my life’s work. Although the goal was not yet clearly defined then in my adolescent mind, I was going to be a scientist — and a professor.

Through high school I paid very little attention to my classes. Thanks to the relatively relaxed school systems of south Alabama in wartime, with overworked and distracted teachers, I got away with it. One memorable day at Mobile’s Murphy High School, I captured with a sweep of my hand and killed twenty houseflies, then lined them up on my desk for the next hour’s class to find. The following day the teacher, a young lady with considerable aplomb, congratulated me but kept a closer eye on me thereafter. That is all I remember, I am embarrassed to say, about my first year in high school.

I arrived at the University of Alabama shortly after my seventeenth birthday, the first member of my family on either side to attend college. I had by this time shifted from snakes and flies to ants. Now determined to be an entomologist and work in the outdoors as much as possible, I kept up enough effort to make A’s. I found that not very difficult (it is, I’m told, very different today), but soaked up all the elementary and intermediate chemistry and biology available.

Harvard University was similarly tolerant when I arrived as a Ph.D. student in 1951. I was considered a prodigy in field biology and entomology, and was allowed to make up the many gaps in general biology left from my happy days in Alabama. The momentum I built up in my southern childhood and at Harvard carried through to an appointment at Harvard as assistant professor. There followed more than six decades of fruitful work at this great university.

I’ve told you my Pushmataha-to-Harvard story not to recommend my kind of eccentricity (although in the right circumstances it could be of advantage); and I disavow my casual approach to early formal education. I grew up in a different age. You, in contrast, are well into a different era, where opportunity is broader but more demanding.

My confessional instead is intended to illustrate an important principle I’ve seen unfold in the careers of many successful scientists. It is quite simple: put passion ahead of training. Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science, or technology, or some other science-related profession. Obey that passion as long as it lasts. Feed it with the knowledge the mind needs to grow. Sample other subjects, acquire a general education in science, and be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears. But don’t just drift through courses in science hoping that love will come to you. Maybe it will, but don’t take the chance. As in other big choices in your life, there is too much at stake. Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you.

Tweets From During The Show

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
ONPOINT
TODAY
Feb 27, 2015
Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ChairmanTom Wheeler, center, joins hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before the start of their open hearing in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015.  (AP)

A US-Israel rift. A win for net neutrality. “American Sniper” verdict. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

Feb 27, 2015
This image released courtesy of the Lead Belly Estate shows folk and blues musician Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter never had a hit record before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1949. (AP)

Going back to Lead Belly. The blues legend is back. His influences, as big as ever.

RECENT
SHOWS
Feb 26, 2015
Humanist chaplain Bart Campolo, center, a former Evangelical Christian youth minister, and his wife, Marty, right, mingle with students as they wait for the start of a forum at the University of Southern California, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP)

More Americans are turning away from religion. We’ll look at how to live a moral life without it.

 
Feb 26, 2015
This Feb. 20, 2015 photo shows an arrangement of peanuts in New York. (AP)

New breakthroughs on peanut allergies – treatment and prevention. And a question: are we too clean for our own good? Plus: did giant gerbils from Asia really bring the bubonic plague to Europe?

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: February 27, 2015
Friday, Feb 27, 2015

We won’t lead you into a debate on the color of #TheDress (it’s blue and black, end of debate), but we do wonder about the blurring lines between so-called Internet culture and general popular culture. Also, it’s snowing in Boston. Still.

More »
Comment
 
Two Congressmen Weigh In On DHS Funding
Tuesday, Feb 24, 2015

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland present their views on the ongoing Congressional budget fight over Department of Homeland Security funding. (Spoiler: They do not agree on a resolution of the crisis).

More »
Comment
 
Our Week In The Web: February
Friday, Feb 20, 2015

We explain what happened with the old podcast feed this week and last, share some other Oscar categories and reminisce about the golden days of Double Rainbows and Honey Badgers who just don’t care.

More »
Comment