This post is by MSU graduate student Luis Zaman.
Many of you have heard about E. O. Wilson’s new article “Great Scientists ≠ Good at Math” in the Wall Street Journal. If you haven’t, you should definitely read it. Wilson uses his difficulties with math as a student, and later as a “32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard” struggling to learn calculus, as encouragement to future scientists. This seems like good advice to me, and I happen to know several successful scientists who appreciated and took comfort in such a prominent figure joining their crusade to be great biologists despite their math woes. However, I also disagree with some of Wilson’s sentiments.
Other blogs have examined this story piece by piece, but I want to focus on just one point: E. O. Wilson’s view of scientific collaboration. I think mathematical and computational biologists are conveyed as second-rate scientists in Wilson’s piece. For him, real science requires intuition, hard work, and focus. After all the imaginative breakthrough science has been done, a number cruncher can be found and added to the project trivially according to “Wilson’s Principle No. 1.” I would call this an antiquated view of collaboration, but I think it would be an unfair generalization of the past; I’d also hate to taint the word collaboration, which has overwhelmingly positive connotations to me, with such a distasteful image. It seems strange that someone who struggled so much with math would suggest it doesn’t also require intuition, hard work, and focus.
I value interdisciplinary approaches to science immensely, especially when trying to understanding fundamental questions about evolution. The BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action is a testament to the success of interdisciplinary science. My formal training is in computer science, mostly from a theoretical perspective. My only biology class was in 9th grade, and I hated it. Now colleagues ask me whether I’m a biologist or computer scientist. It’s a hard question for me to answer, and I like it that way. With the help of BEACON, I’m able to study fundamental questions about coevolution using digital and microbial life jointly with Charles Ofria and Richard Lenski. I get to use vastly different study systems with their unique strengths and weaknesses that require nearly independent sets of skills to master. The people I work with on a daily basis in these two labs range from oceanographers to software developers. How cool is that?
Maybe it’s because I’m just a fledgling scientist, but I believe this type of diverse and collaborative environment nurtures great science. It is exactly opposite to the kind of collaboration that E. O. Wilson is talking about. I have to believe that Wilson knows the value of colleagues that share a fundamental interest in the questions being addressed. That is true collaboration: where intuition and ingenuity are amplified, and hard work is required from start to finish. This level of cooperation requires meaningful crosstalk, and that means a level of proficiency in uncomfortable fields that must be developed. That shouldn’t be something we’re afraid of. Brian McGill wrote a wonderful blog post inspired by the Wilson vs. Math debate (though not in response to it) suggesting that great science often occurs when mathematical and empirical work intersect. I agree wholeheartedly, but would generalize even further: great science happens when diverse creative minds work together, not when intuitive ideas are supplemented with mere technical consultation.
You can contact Luis at luis dot zaman at gmail dot com.