Letters to a Young Scientist: A Response to Brad’s Blog Post:
I’ll have to add this book to my reading list. I thoroughly enjoyed Wilsons 2006 autobiography, Naturalist, as well as several other books by Wilson. I agree with Brad’s comments on communication and I would offer a couple of additional points on this topic. Scientists generally desire to evaluate situations with a cool and objective mind, not wanting to bias their findings with their own emotions or pre-conceived ideas. In reality, this is a worthy goal but not entirely attainable. We are human of course. But more importantly, it may often be critical for a scientists to share their passion for their subject. Naturally, scientific knowledge must be shared with other scientists so that our understanding can be reviewed, critiqued and then multiplied and expanded upon by other scientists. It must also be shared with the general public. One major reason for this is that unless the public can see and appreciate the need for such research, that research will never be funded. As a biologist, that can translate to lack of funding for conservation for the very thing we wish to study, which could ultimately result in the loss of that resource through extinction. Why would any person support conservation funds to save a rare orchid unless they learned to appreciate the beauty and the ecological role of that orchid and the equally rare moth or mosquito (for some orchids) that pollinates it? This too holds true for archaeology, as if the resources are not appreciated for their scientific value and what they can teach us, they will only be valued for whatever monetary value they may offer for looting of archaeological sites. Sharing scientific findings with the public in an understandable and passionate manner is the first step in building a knowledgeable, concerned and supportive constituency.
From my perspective, there is another equally important motive for sharing. Sharing scientific findings with the general public is one of the greatest highs I get in life. To see people get excited about what you are already passionate about reinforces your own enthusiasm for the work you are doing. This non-chemical high stimulates continued work. The work of a scientist can at times be methodical, difficult, dirty, exhausting and even boringly repetitive, but the sharing of the findings can be a great help to encourage us to continue such work. Often the audience (whether young or old) ask questions that approach things from a fresh perspective. While sometimes their questions are simple and easy to answer, other times their insight can be amazing, challenging and can lead you to a totally new approach to your work. Having not yet read Wilsons newest book, I find it interesting that you indicate that he did not include this aspect in this book. In his autobiography, Wilson refers to maintaining teaching introductory classes in college biology when as a senior professor he could have easily opted out from introductory classes to concentrate on his own research and graduate students. Wilson indicated that the fresh views from students who were not majoring in the sciences often offered insights that stimulated his thought and his own studies. Wilson cherished the opportunity to teach these students, as I believe he has cherished the opportunity to publish books for both scientists and the general public.
It comes down to this: If we love what we do, sharing that passion benefits both our audiences, our work and our own mental health. The results are positive in every direction!