Thursday 11 May 2017

How quickly we forget

Probably because I found them on the shelves of my naval father, I have a taste for the books of WW Jacobs, which are quietly funny in their exposure of human folly. If you like your books all wet and salty let me remind you to check out the books of Bartimaeus and Taffrail, pseudonymous memoirs about naval life more of less contemporary with WW Jacobs. Apart from The Da, these books inspired at least one future admiral but have now effectively disappeared beneath the waves. It's peculiar who only a fraction of contemporary culture - Booker Prize Winners, NYT best-sellers, le prix Goncourt - survives to become a timeless classic. Most of those best sellers drift down the listings on Amazon until they are available for 0.01c. I absolutely don't believe here in the market-place as the winnower of quality. All you need to do is reflect on the fact that of the 123 plays of Sophocles only 7 have survived to our times. The corollary of this is that there are gems in the dust of history and you'll be rewarded if you look for them.  I've written before about browsing through shelves of random new books and finding pearls which were never, never would be, reviewed in The Sunday papers.

On reflection it's the same for Nobel Prize [Med Chem Phys] winners. Here's a quick quiz: how did these people confer the greatest benefit to mankind net $£€1 million?:
  • Peter Gr├╝nberg 2007
  • Paul Boyer 1997
  • Georg Bednorz 1987
  • Roger Guillemin 1977
  • Manfred Eigen 1967
  • Daniel Bouvet 1957
There, I bet you can't place more than a couple. I picked those names because I had never knowingly heard about their names or achievements.  That's an indictment of how specialised we are in science. As Haldane articulated, "Keats and Shelley were the last two poets who were at all up to date with their chemical knowledge”: the age of polymaths is over.

This was brought home to me last week when I wrote a couple of pieces recently about people who were ground-breakers in their time but have now passed on. One of my readers once suggested that a diet of 700 words of Blob was sometimes hard to digest and the pill would be easier swallowed if I plugged in a picture or two. I heard and try to obey, but this is what happened. I hunted for "Ed Morrow" scourge of the establishment and nemesis of Senator MacCarthy, Google images gives lots of pages of a young basketballist called Ed Morrow who has only been on the planet a wet week let alone made a significant contribution to the political health of his country. Heck, even London-based twitterer Ed Morrow edges out the 'original and best' Ed Morrow. I know how Google works: fame and links drive up the pages which are delivered. I was reflecting on it being a sad comment on the quality of discourse that today's sportista trumps yesterday's anything when I realised that I should have been searching for Ed Murrow. Google can deal with illiterates like me if given one iota of extra information "Ed Morrow CBS" gets straight to the Great Man.

With the late great Audrey Jane Pinsent/Gibson, it was even harder. There were, essentially, no pictures of this solid, insightful scientist who was at the top of her game between 1950 and 1990. As a trained researcher, I was able to hunt down the current head of her old department and one of her daughters - who is married but retains her first name and now lives in a different country - and ask them if they had a snap in a file somewhere. As you can see, that brought a lovely picture of the young Dr Pinsent out into the public domain.  Unless you are interested in this week's clamour, it's nonsense to believe that Google or Bing will easily deliver the information you want. Blimey, if you were were trying to locate material in the, much smaller, francophonie you'd really have you work cut out.

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