Why Good Scientists Don’t Have to Be Great at Math

Educators often proclaim that mathematics is the unavoidable and indispensable gateway to scientific study and, therefore, science students need to get to advanced math early. Eminent biologist E. O. Wilson, however, has good news for science lovers who are wary of higher math: You don’t have to be great at math to do great science. In fact, “Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate,” he writes.

Wilson, who is famous for generating ultraoriginal and surprising ideas, writes in that, “[f]ortunately, exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.”   

“Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.”—E. O. Wilson

Like the good scientists he describes in his essay, Wilson bases this conclusion on empirical observation. He confides that he got off to a slow start in math because he attended an inferior high school, taking algebra as a college freshman. He finally got around to taking calculus at age 32, at which time he had already won tenure at Harvard University. 

Some things have changed since then. Without an impressive collection of advanced courses, it’s hard even to get into a top college these days, never mind onto the faculty at Harvard. And when was the last time you heard of a biologist attaining tenure by age 32? Still, Wilson’s main point is well taken. “If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile,” choose your field with care and “know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have.” Should proving your hypotheses require mathematical sophistication beyond your abilities, team up with a mathematical or statistical collaborator.

If not mathematical ability, then what does matter? Detailed knowledge of particular phenomena, a passion for a line of inquiry, and the ability to let the mind roam are far more important than mathematical knowledge, Wilson believes. “Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake,” he writes. Darwin, Wilson notes, had “little or no mathematical ability.” His great idea emerged from the deep and detailed knowledge that he acquired in his field studies. Even Einstein used some celebrated thought experiments on his way to revolutionizing physics.

So, mathematical nonwhizzes, don’t despair. While you endeavor to develop your math skills, remember that “[f]or every scientist, there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.”

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