Monday, April 30, 2012

Will more data lead to different histories being told?

New technology is making information more widely available and, when it launches later this year, the WDL will make it easier to access historical evidence about the foundations of modern genetics.  Will this democratize our understanding of the history of genetics and lead to different versions of the history being told?

There is an African proverb which says that history is written by the hunter not the lion.  History inevitably simplifies the past and the selection process can be subjective.  When it launches the WDL will start to put 21 archive collections and around 2,000 books on-line.  The project is to digitise as much as we can rather than cherry pick the highlights. This means that the building blocks used by historians to piece together the past will be made freely available to a wider audience.  A lot of this material may seem like mundane workaday stuff. Users will have to wade through a lot of material to reach the bits they are interested in but this is probably a more accurate reflection of the scientific research process.

Flashes of genius are essential but they do not happen in isolation. Thomas Edison’s phrase about invention being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration applies to scientific research too. The discovery process needs both.

Watson and Crick were extremely clever to work out the helical structure of DNA but they did not get there simply because they were lone geniuses. Before they made their discovery a lot of people had spent years experimenting, writing and thinking about DNA. There had even been flashes of insight which ended up being wrong.I recently read a letter from Gerald Oster sent to Aaron Klug after Rosalind Franklin’s death, in which he recalled his time working in London. He reflects that even though he had much of the relevant information by early 1950 he lacked the insight to work out the structure of DNA.  This letter (FRKN/06/07/001-2) is held by the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge and a digitised version will become part of the WDL.

I am rather hoping that the WDL might help us to recognise that while flashes of inspiration are part of scientific discovery they are only possible because a team of other people paved the way.

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