In a fascinating Wall Street Journal article—a must-read for science teachers—legendary Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson seeks to dispel the notion that students need to be advanced in mathematics to pursue scientific interests. “Many of the most successful scientists in the world today,” he divulges, “are mathematically no more than semiliterate.”
Wilson says that he himself didn’t take algebra until his freshman year in college—a virtual heresy by today’s academic expectations. He adds that he was never more than a C student in math.
Education policymakers and commentators tend to lump math and science together, often as if they were the same subject. But achievement in the sciences generally comes less from quantitative skill, Wilson stresses, than from imagination, conceptual understanding, and focus:
Fortunately, 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.
Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newton dreamed, Darwin dreamed, you dream. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.
Wilson offers some direct advice to students (and, by extension, teachers):
If your level of mathematical is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have.
For aspiring scientists, a key first step is to find a subject that interests them deeply and focus on it. ... For every scientist, there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.