Two Views: How Much Math Do Scientists Need?

On April 5, 2013, The Wall Street Journal published an essay by the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math”. Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel responded to it in Slate on April 9, 2013. We reprint the two essays below, with permission from The Wall Street Journal and Slate.

Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math

E. O. Wilson Shares a Secret: Discoveries Emerge from Ideas, Not Number-Crunching

For many young people who aspire to be scientists, the great bugbear is mathematics. Without advanced math, how can you do serious work in the sciences? Well, I have a professional secret to share: Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.

During my decades of teaching biology at Harvard, I watched sadly as bright undergraduates turned away from the possibility of a scientific career, fearing that, without strong math skills, they would fail. This mistaken assumption has deprived science of an immeasurable amount of sorely needed talent. It has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case. Having spent my precollege years in relatively poor Southern schools, I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama. I finally got around to calculus as a thirty-two-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.

I was never more than a C student while catching up, but I was reassured by the discovery that superior mathematical ability is similar to fluency in foreign languages. I might have become fluent with more effort and sessions talking with the natives, but being swept up with field and laboratory research, I advanced only by a small amount.


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