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.
April 9, 2013
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
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.
University of Utah