Friday, 18 July 2014

Research: hard work

The universe is infinite and it is the purpose of science to try to discover its truth. Whichever size of infinity you choose, it's still impossible to reveal the-truth-the-whole-truth in one lifetime of science, so each of us scientists carves out a chunk of the playing field and tries to make sense of that patch. Some scientists (some of whom are to be found homaged in The Blob) gallop freely and exuberantly across the plain hunting far and wide to tackle and bring to bay difficult prey; others gallop fast and loose in the wrong direction, bending the truth, fudging their results and misleading the rest of us. The humble foot-soldiers of science, like me, work quietly in a corner putting one tiny experimental brick on top of another to build an edifice that stands up even if it doesn't stand very tall.  It's both hard and easy: easy because with an infinity to avenues to explore you are not constrained; hard because nobody knows what the real answer is.

I put it to you that research in the Arts Block is a bit easier because the whole thing (every word written, every picture painted, every song sung) is finite and it's just a case of hunting out the primary sources and thinking about them.  Easy enough if you choose the plays of Sophocles: there are only 7 extant, the other 116 which he is known to have written having gone up in smoke when Caesar torched the library at Alexandria. Heck, there's more material in The Blob than the entire works of the author of Antigone. Like some Mandelbrot fractal recursion, you can write a whole book on a single phrase like "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" and presumably a later author can write a whole book on a phrase in that book. Not to mention the fact that the commentaries (Talmud) on the first five books of the bible (Torah) has ballooned out into a dense thicket of points, counterpoints and extrapolations fifty times greater than the word-of-god. Nevertheless, how difficult can it be to get it right?  Too difficult, it seems.

The Beloved, who has been practicing mindfulness for years before it became both chic and debased, has just bought a book Brainstorm: an Inside-out Guide to the Emerging Adolescent Mind by Daniel J. Siegel MD.  The "MD" is from Harvard Medical School and they don't throw those into your car as you drive along Shattuck St. He's now "Clinical Professor Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine". Wikipedia says "Siegel is known as a mindfulness expert and for his work developing the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology." Given all the qualifications, you tend believe what he has to say. At the very end of the book he suggests that The Answer to "what a successful adolescence might look like" is a poem by "Bessie Anderson Stanley":  which I'll render as prose because it don't rhyme too good:
"To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty. To find the best in others; to give one’s self to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived this is to have succeeded.".  That has a sort of Kiplingesque (if you can keep your head when all about you, tee-tum-tee-tum-tee-tum) post-card ring of truth but TB said, "that's wrong, it's written by Ralph Waldo Emerson".  That does not seem to be the case. Actually they are both wrong and, as far as I can deduce from the finite universe which is the part of the interweb which Google thinks I want to see from Ireland, it was probably written by Albert Edward Wiggam in 1951 believing he was quoting Emerson.

There are several versions of this quote and I use one of the tools in the molecular evolution toolbox, which I've used before, to compare two such:

CLUSTAL W (1.83) multiple sequence alignment
         ***************    **********************************:.  .**
         ************************************:  *********************
         ************              **********************************
Emerson  ------------------------------------------------TOKNOWEVENON
Emerson  ED
Wiggam   ED
Dang, it could happen to anyone in the days before word-processing.  You're copying something in a hurry from a printed page to make a deadline and you substitute persons / people and approbation / appreciation and the sky doesn't fall. But having been educated in TCD the home of the Book of Kells, I am aware of cases where medieval scribes made copy errors that mangled the sense of the manuscript because ther latyn was nott uppe to scratch. Here's another mol.evol tool used with effectiveness for Arts Block research.

This is probably what Ms Stanley wrote in 1905 (Wikipedia agrees):
He has achieved success who has lived well laughed often and loved much
who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, 
the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children 
who has filled his niche and accomplished his task 
who has left the world better than he found it 
whether by an improved poppy a perfect poem or a rescued soul
who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty or failed to express it 
who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had 
whose life was an inspiration whose memory a benediction.
Sort of the same sentiment as the Emerson/Wiggam but not much better rhyming. It's easier to cite Emerson, of whom everyone has heard, than Stanley, who wrote this one thing for a newspaper competition in 1904 (or was it 1905?).  It shows that you're working at your sources if you cite minority-view Stanley but it shows that you're not working hard enough if you clip the wrong verse.

Matter a damn? Not! Except that you are now advised to take everything else that Siegel writes about mindfulness, interpersonal neurobiology or adolescence with a damned good shake of salt.  It's like if you turn in a thesis full of spelinge errurs and impenetrable grammar or ask for a character reference from someone (like me this Summer) whose name you can't be bothered to spell correctly.  These things don't invalidate what you say but they sure do make it harder to accept your statements on the nod.

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