Words from a Wise Scientist – "We Need the Humanities"

“Keep your eyes up and your head turning” were the words of wisdom from E.O. Wilson on May 17 at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, when asked for his advice to budding scientists. In other words, never stop seeking and learning. When asked how to inspire children he quoted Rachel Carson, “Take them to the seashore and give them a bucket.” When asked what are the new frontiers in science, without pause he said, “microbial ecology” – for example, there are more bacteria than stars in the universe, and we need it to survive.

Did I mention that today, June 10, is his 84th birthday? Professor Wilson spoke to an intimate, sold-out group who gathered to hear him read from his most recent book, Letters to a Young Scientist.

Wilson has continued to learn, educate, amaze, and provoke controversy throughout his long career that includes two Pulitzer Prizes among his countless honors and awards. Professor Wilson lacks pretension in his words – he is as clear and gracious in his answers to biology graduate students as to elementary teachers. He stresses the interdependence of all living things, creating a foundation committed to preserving biodiversity.

Wilson equated today’s rapid technological and scientific pace as similar to prior revolutions, in particular the 18thc Renaissance. He noted that science and technology once again need the humanities to “make sense of” and “to put in perspective” our astonishing fast pace of discovery. As in other periods of furious development, science and society are out of sync, necessitating that fields that ponder “shoulds” and “what ifs” and values and meanings to be reinvigorated to make sense of what we now know, or think we do. Among his more controversial statements in this talk is that someone doesn’t need to be good in math to be a good scientist. That didn’t seem to sit well with those in the audience who struggled to learn calculus. Despite that, as a 32-year old Assistant Professor at Harvard, Wilson audited a calculus course, learning alongside his 18-year old undergraduate students.

His wisdom and enthusiasm was not tempered by age but rather greater because of it.