A Visit From a Science Rock Star


As thousands of festival-goers flock to Coachella over the next two weekends, rock stars are on many minds across the country. But here in San Francisco, I’ve been reflecting on a different kind of groupie-worthy icon — the one and only E. O. Wilson, champion of conservation, father of sociobiology and distinguished lover of all things six-legged. Unlike sports or Hollywood, the profession of science does not have many rock stars, but Ed Wilson is one of the few notables in the geek world of science who undoubtedly deserve that label.

A few weeks ago, I invited Ed to come visit us here at the California Academy of Sciences, and our halls had a palpable buzz in anticipation of his arrival. Exactly what creates charisma and stardom? And how does a modest myrmecologist (translation: scientist who studies ants) become a global voice for science with a fan club of millions? I don’t imagine Ed Wilson has a clue as to how his persona evolved, but his voice is undisputedly heard from the White House all the way to the rural school rooms of Alabama where he grew up. And inside halls like ours, it is revered.

Opening the door of his taxi, I greeted Ed with a pooter. His face lit up with joy. This silly-looking necklace with a rubber hose attached to a plastic vial is actually an excellent field device for collecting ants. For years now, I have given Ed a pooter each time I meet up with him (earning me the nickname of “pooter provider” among my staff), and our secret signal of friendship has become a ritual.

Seeing the California Academy of Sciences for the first time is an overwhelming architectural sensation. Ed gazed up at the green roof of our LEED platinum building in awe, —> Read More