On heroes in Academia

Two common topics on the blog, the information explosion and setting goals as a young scientist, come together in the discussion of heros. Although the term may sound antiquated, much of science is about finding apt metaphors and making connections. I think having a set of folks whose character and accomplishments are models can be immensely helpful when setting your own life goals.

That said, identifying and emulating heros is a tricky business. Imagine finding a role model 1000 years ago. He or she likely lived in your neighborhood and was thus a sample of perhaps 500 people. Nowadays we live on a planet of 6,000,000,000+ people, virtually all connected by a complex social/electronic web. This guarantees two things: 1) The truly exceptional people will be a lot farther out on the distribution of traits than they were when the planet held only millions, and 2) We find them and celebrate them. As a consequence, the notion of emulating these folks is a sure recipe for neurosis: there are only so many Nobel’s and Pulitizers to hand out. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use these folks to help set our own course.

Ed Wilson

One such role model whose interests are amply reflected in this blog is E. O. Wilson, for which Amanda Leigh Haag has a nice profile in SEED magazine. Wilson’s life work reflects a number of themese that any young scientist could profitably contemplate.

1) A feeling for the organism. Wilson knows his ants, and has used this knowledge to make groundbreaking contributions in fields as diverse as physiology, behavior, biodiversity, and systematics. His essay Systematics Ascending from In Search of Nature highlights this philosophy of integrated biology starting with an intimate knowledge of a taxon.

2) Reading and thinking broadly. In a similar vein, poking your nose over the fence to consider other disciplines and philosophies makes you a better thinker. Consilience is Wilson’s vision of the ultimate rapprochement between science and the humanities. Written from the viewpoint of a hardcore scientific rationalist, such a synthesis would never come from someone whose nose rarely left the journal Insectes Sociaux.

3) The role of scientist as teacher. We have discussed earlier the difficulty of changing minds, the need for multiple approaches in doing so, and the vital role the scientific community must play in some of the titanic struggles that lie ahead. Wilson’s most recent book The Creation is written as an open and frank discussion with a Southern Baptist pastor on the glories of the earth’s biodiversity and the need to conserve it. When much of the back and forth on the web is about denigrating other viewpoints, Wilson uses his own background to search for common ground.

4) Choose your collaborators wisely. Find folks whose skills complement your own. Here is one of my underlined quotes from Naturalist, one of the great autobiographies of the past few decades:

I am a poor mathematician. At Harvard as a tenured professor in my early thirties I sat through two years of formal courses in mathematics to remedy my deficiency, but with little progress…I have no taste for the subject. I have succeeded to some extent in theoretical model building by collaborating with mathematical theoreticians of the first class. They include, in successive periods of my research, William Bossert, Robert MacArthur, George Oster, and Charles Lumsden. My role was to suggest problems to be addressed, to combine my intuition with theirs, and to lay out empirical evidence unknown to them. They were my intellectural prosthesis and I theirs.

5) Quality = design * content. When I am about to begin a difficult writing project, I will sometimes pull down a volume from one of three writers to gain a bit of inspiration: John Steinbeck, John McPhee, and E. O. Wilson. All are naturalists, all write with grace, concision, and elegance, but only one studies ants. 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: