Our friend Maureen Rolla alerted us to Ira Flatow’s compelling NPR interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson, about his book Letters to a Young Scientist. Wilson is the rare scientist who is deeply aware of the creative process. His words are powerful and true no matter what your field or medium. At the website, you can listen and/or read the transcript, but here’s some stunning bits:
FLATOW: …You do mention in part of your book about the part of creativity is to do sort of the back-of-the-napkin sort of experiment. You just have an idea, you’re not going to even make notes about it, you’re not going to keep track of it, you’re just going to try something.
WILSON: Yeah, glad you brought that up, Ira. I didn’t use the expression, but I’m in it, and that’s the value of dirty experiments. The image of doing good science, that is the popular, the public image, is the scientist conducting careful experiment after careful experiment, taking abundant notes – time of day, every condition used and making an advance into a subject.
But the best way to do it is – to make discoveries – is to make short imperfect experiments. Don’t worry about taking notes, in most cases, but just try things out. Shove nature around a little bit. Disturb it. Disturb an organism, disturb a small system and find out – to see if anything happens. And if it does, you might be on the edge of an important breakthrough, and then you sit down and devise experiments and take notes….
…And I’ve now wondered how many creative scientists, people who are constantly in search of new ideas, new ways of looking at things, new enterprises, talk to themselves in a way as though they were speaking to another person, and trying to open up new subjects, new ways to get into old subjects.
We’re very, very specialized, and we live in only a small segment of the whole universe of possibilities. I’m not talking about expanding into science fiction. I’m just talking about gaining a perspective that could somehow be – or validated by what we’re learning from science at an exponentially increasing rate and making some better use of it in the creative and interpretive processes of the humanities.
For a weekend of wonder, check out the endlessly interesting Encyclopedia of Life website, one of Wilson’s big ideas.
Related posts: visual vacation: the encyclopedia of life
2 replies on “e.o. wilson: make short imperfect experiments + try things out”
Tom Lovejoy of the Smithsonian, a great pal of Wilson’s, tells the story of their ant-hunting expedition to Brazil. Wilson was in hot pursuit of some really rare species of ant. They hunted all over the Amazon to no avail. Dejected, they were boarding a plane back to the States when Wilson found the ant – on Lovejoy’s shirt!
Updating the previous: Tom was at the Smithsonian when he told me the above story. He is now chair of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics & the Environment at George Mason University. He’s the guy who coined the word “bio-diversity.” One of his oft-repeated quotes:
“The natural world in which we live is nothing short of entrancing — wondrous really. Personally, I take great joy in sharing a world with the shimmering variety of life on earth. Nor can I believe any of us really want a planet which is a lonely wasteland.”