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I never grew out of my bug period


What makes a good scientist
EO Wilson Scientist
Comments (1) Please sign in or register to add comments
Friday, 11 May 2018 07:09 PM
Simply fascinating exposition What makes a good scientist

The final products of science, what we produce and what we can prove, from a mathematical theorem to a well-researched analysed and probabilistically correct hypothesis, is without emotion and without value in itself. That is what all scientists try to achieve because, after all, an important scientific discovery is forever. So that's what you aim for. Original discovery, objective, correct findings, are coin of the realm of science. So that's what you're after. But the scientist is a mess of emotions. The scientist... the creative scientist, is... mind is aswirl all the time with ideas of... crazy ideas of reminiscing, of dreaming of doing this, of doing that, coming up with connections, most of them all are no good. And furthermore, heavily emotional about it. You know, the excitement of maybe hitting on some notion that could be followed up.

So it's why I like to say that the complete scientist... the ideal scientist, thinks like a poet. And the thought... the creative processes are not alot different from a person in the creative arts. Dreaming of choreography, dreaming of the novel, and so on. You're thinking of a narrative, you're thinking of a process that may exist. You have a hint from one or two facts that something like that might be going on, and you dream about it in a chaotic... often chaotic manner. So the ideal scientist thinks like a poet, works like a bookkeeper, and that's the difference, because you know, you can't just put your dreams down. You're not a novelist or poet. You have to fasten on to an observation of a phenomenon, a connection between two phenomena. The presence of something that hadn't been found before. Fasten on to it and prove it in a... through repeated experiments, through photographs, or demonstrations, through specimens. In a way that others can come along and check it, follow exactly in your footsteps. And that is the work of a bookkeeper. And then, to be ideal you have to write like a journalist. You have to write it so it's clear. Of course very... most scientists fall down on that category. And when you write about it there's a little section in scientific papers called the discussion section. You can go back to being a poet, that's something the public doesn't realise. You can start in your introduction by saying, this is why I find this important. It's why I was excited and brought to it... or me and, I and my colleagues... and we undertook to make this study. That's your introduction.

And then you go in a typical scientific paper, as standard... there's no way of improving this in my opinion... to methods, instrumentation, what you did, what the experiments you did. And now you just absolutely bore everybody to death because you've got to list all of the steps, step by step in exact technical language. And that's why it gets jargony, but it sometimes has to be done that way. And then you have after materials and methods, you have your results. And this has to be as dry as a tax accountant's report, you know. Then you have discussion. Now you're able to say, after you've drawn the conclusion from your results, you say now this is very interesting, if this holds up because of the following implications and we will find many fruitful endeavours to follow upon such and such if in addition we discover that so and so. So that is essentially the way a scientist works, but the important thing to bear in mind is that they have not been seared into emotional immobility. Only a psychopath could be a scientist without passion and human emotion. And psychopaths almost never succeed as scientists.

EO Wilson (1929-2021) was an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author (two Pulitzer Prizes). His biological specialty was myrmecology, the study of ants.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: scientist, research article

Duration: 4 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 22 May 2018