In this new TEDMED talk, biologist E.O. Wilson voices some very wise yet seldom heard opinions. Though aimed at young scientists, his advice should also be heeded by those students who are making important decisions about their higher education.
From my recent work as a private tutor, it has become clear that many very good students are hesitant to pursue careers in science because they fear mathematics. Having looked ahead, they know that earning a degree in science would require passing at least some university mathematics courses. What has surprised me is that being able to pass those courses is not necessarily their main concern. Rather, they interpret the presence of the requirement to mean that, working in science, they would have to spend most of their days sitting around solving math problems.
Obviously, some scientists really do work that way and they do love it. For the most part though, that’s simply not what a career in science is like. Wilson emphasizes that most research projects are conducted by teams of people working together and that not everyone on every such team has to be, or even can be, equally fluent in advanced mathematics. For most members of such a team, it is sufficient to be able to converse intelligently with their colleagues and to know when to seek more mathematically sophisticated collaborators. Just yesterday I had lunch with a friend who told me about a recent incident when some colleagues were trying to solve a simple problem and suddenly realized that more than 20 years had slipped by since the last time any of them had done any calculus.
I encourage my students to watch the video and to pay special attention to Wilson’s second principle.