Advice from the Great and Good

Not so long ago I stumbled across a very enthusiastic review of a new book by the renowned entomologist EO Wilson. The book was not about ants as such, his speciality, but its content can be deduced from the title: ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘. With such an elegiac review to encourage me, I bought the book (to read on my iPad) and looked forward to profiting from his words and admiring his wisdom. A man who has been so successful himself in his chosen field should be a good guide for those setting out (and those further down the road), I assumed. My memory told me that many years before Peter Medawar, a biologist of great distinction noted for his work on tissue rejection, a Nobel Prize winner no less, had written a book with a rather similar title. This book too I purchased (it turned out to be called ‘Advice to a Young Scientist‘ and was published in 1979; I clearly should have read it at the time). In the end, for reasons I will give below, I read them both in quick succession over the Bank Holiday weekend.

Wilson is famed as a writer (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book On Human Nature, coincidentally published the year Medawar published his book of advice) as well as a naturalist. His style is easy to read. However, there was much in the book that irritated me. Firstly, although he tries to pay lip service to the idea that he is writing for ‘scientists’, he really isn’t. He is very much a naturalist observing and recording the (mainly ant) world and from his observations deducing hypotheses and models. He hasn’t the experience of building experiments in the laboratory, or even, in some senses, constructing experiments in the field. The advice he gives may feel of limited use to a condensed matter physicist or synthetic chemist, for instance, because the examples of how to set up problems and then solve them will feel very remote.

Furthermore, although the book is broken up into short chapters that look like they are going to convey pithy words of wisdom, frequently they serve as no more than window-dressing for stories of his ant-hunting life. Stories, moreover, that prove his cleverness; vehicles to demonstrate his perspicacity and wisdom. It is a very Whiggish kind of book, full of how careers (at least his) progress in an almost unbroken chain of successes. Again, this may not be recognizable by all young scientists! His advice is clearly to live a life as he has, a life where implicitly ambition (not simply curiosity or being driven to find out more) is a major driving force. His view is that ‘Very often ambition and entrepreneurial drive, in combination, beat brilliance.‘ One feels he says this with approval.

This self-congratulatory, explicitly ambitious tone was not of the sort I felt at one with. So I quickly turned to the Medawar book, out of curiosity but also by way of comparison. I thought maybe it would feel dated, being written more than 30 years ago. In fact, aside from some remarks about presentations when even slides (that’s 35mm slides, of a kind never seen at a lecture these days) were regarded as dangerously modern, the book felt entirely up to date in its tone. It also felt very, very different. From the book I picked up some interesting philosophical and historical titbits but nothing about the massive achievements of Medawar himself. There were no anecdotes about how clever he’d been in this or that situation, but wise words about how best to interact with those around you by being courteous, ethical, thorough and other good things; what is and isn’t meant by the scientific method and how one should tackle one’s research, all written in a very personal style but without self intruding.

When it came to ambition, Medawar made his position very clear:

Ambition: Considered as a motive force that helps to get things done, ambition is not necessarily a deadly sin, but excess of ambition can certainly be a disfigurement. An ambitious young scientist is marked out by having no time for anybody or anything that does not promote or bear upon his work. …The ambitious make too obvious a point of being polite to those who can promote their interests and are proportionately uncivil to those who cannot.

I cannot imagine Wilson having written those words, nor even believing them if he’d read them. For Wilson ‘Real scientists don’t take vacations’. They also ought to get out of all administration work and, according to him: ‘Make excuses, dodge, plead, trade‘ to get out of this drudgery, but he does concede you may need to take weekends off ‘for rest and diversion‘. I suspect the scientist Wilson most admires might equate with some of the jerks I’ve written about before with disparagement. Medawar, on the other hand, himself headed one of the major UK Institutes (the National Institute for Medical Research from 1961 for 8 years, until he had a stroke). He was a very influential leader of research, an effective communicator with politicians and first-rate spokesman (and writer) for science. Not for him dodging and pleading to get out of that line of work.

I did wonder to what extent the difference in tone between the two books might also lie in their different country of provenance. It is possible that Medawar is a typical self-deprecating stereotypical Brit who resists the brash naked ambition of the colonies exemplified (again if I may stereotype) by Wilson. I can imagine that distinction has some weight. Wilson’s book, albeit women feature, is also a very macho book (he writes approvingly of a female PhD student of his who was ‘audacious’, indeed he devotes a whole chapter to her story). Medawar, on the other hand, has a whole chapter dedicated to ‘Sexism and Racism in Science’ at a time when such topics must barely have begun to feature in most scientists’ minds. It is written with great sensitivity and awareness of the challenges that minorities faced (and face) in science and still feels apposite today.

So my advice to young scientists would be to get hold of the older classic text. It has far more genuine, dispassionate advice and less personal anecdote of how one particular scientist/naturalist made their way. If you want a signpost about the do’s and don’ts of how to get on in (academic) science, peppered with historical context, a little Baconian thought and some useful epigrams I recommend Medawar. If, on the other hand, you want the brave Whiggish story of one’s man adventures with ants around the world – Wilson is the man for you.

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13 Responses to Advice from the Great and Good

  1. cromercrox says:

    If you need to have an example of this sort of book written by a jerk, I offer for your consideration Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science by James D. Watson (Oxford University Press) for your consideration. I wrote a review for this in BBC Focus magazine (October 2007) – the review is sadly not available online.

  2. I too am a huge admirer of Medawar, and I quote him quite often. It would be fascinating to know what he’d have made of the state of science today.

    As I recently said, when invited to offer advice, “Try to maintain some academic integrity despite the many pressures to do the opposite that are imposed on you by your elders (but not always betters)”.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    I am going to slightly disagree with Athene here. I think that to distinguish between “scientists” who build experiments in the lab or field and “naturalists” who observe and record what they see in the world around them is a false dichotomy. Yes, laboratory experiments have an important role, but there are whole areas of science like Geology and Astronomy where all you can do is observe and measure what is out there.

    We should not forget that both Darwin and Wallace would have been naturalists by this definition, while Mendel would have been a scientist.

    • I agree that it may look like a false dichotomy based on the brief description in my post. But if you read Wilson’s book I think you will see why I think it will not serve many a ‘scientist’ (as I’ve used the word here) very well. It was part of the annoyance I felt with the book that Wilson appeared to be writing in generalities which, in fact, were nothing like as widely applicable as he implied. I carefully chose examples where observation would not get you very far, but of course you can choose others where they will!

      • For what it’s worth I read it not as a dichotomy at all – my reading was not that you are suggesting naturalists are not scientists, merely that they represent only a (probably rather small) subset of scientists, whose experiences may not generalise well to the sorts of scientist who do spend much of their time doing experiments as such.

  4. Mike says:

    Very interesting reviews, thanks, Athene.

    Wilson has maintained his provocative stance, setting the biological blogosphere alight, by apparently downplaying the importance (or possibly even relevance) of mathematical skills in current biology teaching, largely because he didn’t need them to become an important scientist. Jeremy Fox has covered the discussion over at Dynamic Ecology”. Well worth a read.

    P.S., Darwin was most certainly an experimentalist, therefore also a scientist by the above definition. He combined the best of both worlds.

  5. AH says:

    Another example of this type of book is ‘Advice for a young investigator’ by Ramon y Cajal. Dating from around 1916, it includes a long section on the delicate matter of choosing a wife (!). There are also some entertaining descriptions of different types of scientist.

    The full text seems to be here:

    • aeon says:

      From what I remember about Ramon y Cajal (admittedly read in a popular science biography series), he was quite an… extraordinary person. A lot of the stuff he thought, wrote and did was a little bit off to the extreme, I guess.

  6. cromercrox says:

    Once upon a time I was going to cover a conference on something or another at which many scientific pandrums were due to attend. A few days earlier I happened to be on the phone to a Famous Scientist known for his unshakeable ebullience and self-confidence. I knew that he was going to be at this conference.

    “All the Great and the Good will be there,” I said. “Which one are you?”

    “Both,” was his characteristic reply.

  7. AnnaW says:

    I also love the Medawar book, and give it to all of my students to read. And I concur with the commenter who mentioned the Ramon y Cajal book, the section on how to choose a wife is absolutely priceless – I have left this lying around in the hope that my husband will take some hints, but no luck so far!! And for pithy advice, I’d recommend xkcd’s Zombie Marie Curie ( – “You don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.”

  8. Excellent review – I like that you managed to write such an entertaining review of two books which sound like they may themselves be rather dry…

  9. Pingback: Friday links: Science Cafe at the ESA meeting, Peter Medawar > EO Wilson as a source of advice, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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