Below is a letter (not published) that I submitted to the Wall Street Journal in response to EO Wilson’s op ed piece in the April 5, 2013 edition.

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April 9, 2013

Dear Editors:

I read with interest the article by E.O. Wilson, a distinguished

scientist whose work I greatly admire. Wilson addresses a problem that

concerns us all: the declining interest of young people in science.

I agree with much in Wilson’s article, e.g., that ideas play a key role,

that disciplined fantasies are the fountainhead of creativity. This

said, I take issue with the implication that mathematical semiliteracy

is an adequate preparation for a young person interested in science. What

is sufficient in one generation may not be in the next. Consider two

fundamental advances in physics: Faraday’s law of induction, which made

possible the electric generator, and Maxwell’s discovery that

electromagnetic waves propagate in a vacuum at the speed of light,

which made possible radio communication. Just thirty years apart, one

discovery was made without mathematics, while the other used the most

sophisticated mathematics of the day — and it did come from “staring at

the equations.”

One sees the same progression in biology. In the days of Linnaeus and

Darwin, mathematics played no role. But now whole fields of biology have

been created using mathematics. It is one thing to cut chromosomes into

pieces with enzymes. It is another to assemble the pieces into a map, a

dictionary of life. That was done with a sophisticated piece of

mathematics, the Smith-Waterman algorithm. Mathematics also plays a key

role in reconstructing the tree of life: when and how did species branch

off from their ancestors? Darwin would be pleased!

Back to Wilson’s concern — no student should be deterred from a

career in science by mathematics — but that same student should know

enough mathematics to collaborate fruitfully and to be conversant with

ideas his colleagues will use: statistical argument, model, simulation,

algorithm, etc. Better to enter the game with a full deck.

Sincerely,

James Carlson

Professor Emeritus

University of Utah