Book Reviews

Letter to an Old Scientist


Professor Wilson –

I first heard about you in my high school AP biology class. You were mentioned in a few of the documentaries we watched, and my teacher had read some of your books and relayed some of the stories I was later delighted to reread in your book, Letters to a Young Scientist. The story that most stuck in my mind was about the time you created “ant zombies” by coating live ants in oleic acid, causing undertaker ants to dump them outside the colony as if they were dead. To our class, you became the Ant Man, a boy from the South who became a successful Harvard professor because of his undying love for and curiosity about animals and insects.

Prior to my AP bio class, I didn’t really hold science in great regard. Math was my main passion (as well as books), but I hadn’t had many good experiences in any of my science classes. Last year, however, I was lucky enough to have a teacher so devoted and loving – to both biology and her students. I could go on for eons about the immense pleasure I had in her class and how she changed my view of science, especially biology, but this is already looking to be a long enough letter as is. I now find myself in love with biology, and I’ve been branching out to other sciences by way of books and other resources. After the AP test, my teacher came in with a huge collection of personal science-related books to share, giving us an ecstatic review of each and every one of them (especially raving about anything by you). She was kind enough to let me borrow a few books to read over summer, one of them being a well-loved and water-warped copy of Letters to a Young Scientist. She said she enjoys reading in the pool. I’ve been working through my endless to-read list throughout summer, and I finally picked up your book yesterday. I haven’t been able to put it down since (until I got the idea in my head to write this letter, so I’ve been alternating between writing this and reading).

I will absolutely read more of your books as soon as I can, but I couldn’t wait to write you and tell you how much I adored this book.

As I read, I came up with so many questions, as I believe a young scientist should be in the practice of doing. I would be absolutely honored if you responded to this letter in any fashion, and even more thrilled if you answered a few of my questions, but I fully understand if your time is pressing and your mailbox already inundated with letters from admirers of your work. Because I have so many questions, I’ve arranged them by topic:

About reading/writing:

  • Did this book start out as a collection of letters to a specific young scientist?
  • The letters seem to be written in a linear fashion, every so often referencing the letters that came before it. I just read a wonderful book called Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write by Helen Sword, so lately I’ve been particularly interested in how writers go about writing. What can you tell me about your writing process? Do you write at a certain time every day? A certain amount of words per session? I’d love to get an idea for how you’ve produced so many titles to your name.
  • What are some of your favorite books you’ve read? (Scientific or otherwise)
  • I appreciate how you always say “he or she” as opposed to just “he.” How do you feel about the level of  gender equality in STEM fields? Are there any female scientists you really admire?
  • Did you enjoy being able to write Letters to a Young Scientist in a more personal style than typical academic writing?

About being a scientist:

  • You mention getting bitten or stung by different animals/insects throughout your career and brush it off as a hazard of the trade (“I have since learned that all snake specialists, scientists and amateurs alike, apparently get bitten at least once by a venomous snake. I was not to be an exception.” and “Dingoes prowled around our camp at night, the summer sun dehydrated us, and our footsteps turned huge meat ant nests into boiling masses of angry red-and-brown, viciously biting defenders. Was I afraid? Never. I loved every minute of it.”). Do you ever get used to it?? Do you have special salves for different bites? I’m currently nursing some gnarly mosquito bites, and I can’t imagine being cool with constantly being covered in bug bites. Or with catching and crushing a bee to smell its banana-like pheromones.
  • What does it feel like to name a new species? How does it compare to naming a child? (I loved the story about how Rabeling named an ant species Martialis heureka – “the little Martian that has been discovered” – after your comment that the specimen was so odd it must be from Mars.)
  • You write about a lot of your travels as a field entomologist. I would also like to travel, but as previously stated, I think I’m a bit too squeamish to follow your exact path. What other scientific professions allow for travel?
  • You encourage young scientists to pursue areas less studied because it allows them a chance to make more original discoveries. Is a side effect of that becoming really familiar with others in your field?
  • Is the scientific community more collaborative or cutthroat? Does it just depend on the scientist/institution?

I’ve adored your book, and I appreciate how you took the time to share your insight with aspiring young scientists. I’ve been reading a lot of science books lately, testing out different disciplines and trying to see where I fall. Given my interest in reading and writing as well as science, I loved your comparison between the creativity of both novelists and scientists, of which you say, “…innovators in both literature and science are basically storytellers. In the early stages of the creation of both literature and science, everything in the mind is a story. There is an imagined ending, and usually an imagined beginning, and a selection of bits and pieces that might fit in between.” I’ve always quietly considered being an author at some point in my life, and this parallel made it a bit more possible in my mind to be both an academic and a writer.

Some of the things you said really changed my perspective on how science works, for example when you recommended doing informal and easy experiments: “Quick uncontrolled experiments are very productive. They are performed just to see if you can make something interesting happen. Disturb Nature and see if she reveals a secret.” I also really enjoyed some of the thought experiments you employed throughout your book (especially the one about the tree stump), inviting me to ponder something with you. They gave me a way to understand how a great scientific mind like yours goes about considering the world around you and all the possibilities within it. Lastly, you inspired me and made me rethink what I’m capable of when you spoke of your mindset of “If he could do it, so can I, and maybe better” as well as how one of your P.h.D students, Corrie Saux, went on to do the whole project of determining the family tree of ants after being turned down by the 3 leading scientists who were already working on it.

I hope that I can put all of your words of advice to use as an academic in some STEM field (I’m not sure quite what I want to do yet). Who knows, maybe I will end up as an entomologist one day. I have been very interested in bugs before, sometimes making little habitats for the love-bugs in Florida, watching in awe as the lighting bugs came out in Virginia, and exploring a river bank littered with curious exoskeletons in Northern California. I know whatever I end up studying, your words and encouragement will stay with me and continue to inspire me to be the best scientist I can be. For that, I can’t thank you enough.

A grateful young scientist,



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