The (lack of) social media action when an important scientist dies fascinates me. Of course, most scientists aren’t celebrities in the usual sense and, on the rare occasion when they are known to a larger portion of the population, they are not even known for their work. (Do you really know what Stephen Hawking’s contributions to astronomy are?) Actual scientists and technologists (not to be confused with Silicon Valley CEOs) are not creatures of social media which tends towards the eight-grade popularity contests they were never good at anyway. So who is going to really spread the word of a giant in science? It is therefore not surprising the recent death of E.O. Wilson barely got a whisper on my social media feed.
But it should have.
Not being a biologist by formal training, I first became aware of Wilson when I was thinking about cooperative networks of stationary sensors to be used by NASA to search for extraterrestrial life. Always willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting, I wondered if Nature had already evolved similar systems I could “borrow” (the patents having long since expired millions of years ago). The obvious candidates were from the insect world – bees and ants. This is why I had the pleasant experience of stumbling onto Wilson’s book, The Ants, then less than 10 years old. Here was a clear explanation of the “cooperative” behavior of seemingly autonomous parts towards a greater whole. Armed with this knowledge and some (very) rudimentary ideas about how consciousness is an emergent behavior of the brain, I went on to invent the Sensor Web.
Wilson applied his ideas about ant organization to humans. If Darwin’s evolution focused on a population’s hardware, Wilson’s evolution focused on a population’s software. This is how he, practically single-handedly, developed the field of sociobiology. His were highly radical ideas – as leaps in understanding often are. And if you think people were pissed off by Darwin comparing humans to primates, you can imagine the reaction to their being compared to insects, though I think it may be mostly unfair to the ants.
Wilson most fully laid out his views on the world with the publication of Consilience, significantly subtitled The Unity of Knowledge. I remember buying it in Vroman’s, an actual brick-and-mortar Pasadena bookstore – fitting for this type of book, on the basis of recognizing Wilson’s name on the cover. In a masterpiece on the order of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and likely beyond it, Wilson validated so many of my ideas and gut instincts that I could not put on a firm foundation. My professional interests and work have spanned engineering and science, the theoretical and the experimental, and science and the arts. There are many who viewed (and view) my path as a “lack of focus” and few who appreciate its tight synthesis. But there it all was laid out by Wilson: the boundaries in our comprehension and creative appreciation are but artificial constructs of smaller minds. Ever after, I could point to Wilson when someone questioned my unusual, and only seemingly meandering, path.
Assuming they knew who he was.
Which was often not the case.
I like to think Wilson would be amused his research into the seemingly mundane behavior of ants – he was politely ridiculed about it by leading biologists of the day – influenced my thinking about technology development. Just another example of consilience.
It’s time for a reread – a re-exploration of ideas. Consider it the metaform of a selfie with a scientist.