Columbus and a Sea of Blue Ideas

Columbus Breaking the Egg (Christopher Columbus) by William Hogarth

For a scientist -- or anyone for that matter -- to proclaim the discovery of a physical thing (a country, a particle, a planet, a new species of fish) has always rubbed me as a potentially childish endeavor, and, maybe more to the point, an altogether arrogant claim.* How could they possibly know, for sure, that in the thousands of years of recorded history no one else has found what they have?

Since we have recently celebrated Columbus Day, let’s use him as an example. “He,” the claim goes, “discovered America.” Well, actually, no. There are lots of things wrong with this claim, but I’ll only go into a few very briefly because the topic has been belabored by so many historians and activists that my adding to that body of lit. will do no one any good:  (1) he found a country/continent that was inhabited for about 12,000 years prior to his arrival, by an Asian population that walked an unimaginably long and icy bridge into Canada (which now, of course, isn’t there); (2) even if we try to claim that he was the first European to find the continent, there are problems here too; Vikings living on the southern tip of Greenland had traded and frequented the continent (they called it Vinland) long long before Spain traveled much further west than the Canary Islands; (3) he didn’t find America, he found Cuba.

Of course, this, the historical, empirical version of Columbus is not the person that we celebrated this past Monday. We celebrated the symbol of Columbus. A symbol that, for better or worse, is the symbol of America: determined; individualistic; steadfast in the face of the great, dangerous expanses of the unknown; slightly arrogant and reckless; and ultimately victorious in his endeavor to go where no one thought was possible – to add icing to the cake, he also came back rich. The story of Columbus mirrors the founding story of the US so well that to critique Columbus, even Columbus as myth, while continuing to sing the refrain of our own origin story, would rival the appearance of a patient suffering a traumatic brain hemorrhage caused by a great unknown cognizant dissonance. So here we are, kind of stuck with him, and a story we now know to be bull--

But back to my original argument, that claims of having “discovered” something which exists in plain sight, are, at the very least, unintentionally egotistical, and more likely myopic to a fault. What appears to be happening when that word ‘discovery’ is bandied about, is a specialist realizes that in the accepted body of knowledge that defines and informs his specialty there is nothing written about this thing that he now sees. His recollections of past discoveries come up empty.  He then believes, “Oh my God, I’ve done it. I’ve found this thing no one else has.” He will inevitably take some notes, maybe a picture or two, and run back to his office yelling, “Guess what. Guess what.” There, in his office, with his peers, he will invariably be doubted by everyone who hears his crazy story and looks at his terribly shot photos (“I’m a scientist, not an artist,” he will defend himself). His jealous friends will pull books from the shelves, push papers around their desks, scour the internet, ingest large amounts of caffeine, and all in an effort to pop Johnny the Discovering Scientist’s bubble, to prove him absolutely wrong (and maybe kind of an attention grabbing jerk). When and if they fail, he gets to officially shout, “Eureka!” and puff out his chest to receive a golden medal of one kind or another.

But scientists aren’t librarians, and their searches are not always that great. Scholarly journals go defunct, papers are written in other (sometimes obscure) languages, research is conducted by non-specialists, and sometimes, for whatever reason, knowledge, discoveries, information of all kinds, goes into hiding, it gets lost. Not all the knowledge of the world, all the things that different people have seen over the years and written about can easily be found by those not expert in looking. Even by experts, things go missing or remain unfound.

But with an exhausting search information that went previously unfound can be rediscovered  so as to bring “new” knowledge to a community that may benefit from what it imparts. Of course, I’m not the first one to have this idea. Back in the heady, olden days of the 1980’s, a librarian from the University of Chicago, Don Swanson, had this crazy idea that he could solve problems in science without ever doing research of his own:

Knowledge can be public, yet undiscovered, if independently created fragments are logically related but never retrieved, brought together, and interpreted. Information retrieval, although essential for assembling such fragments is always problematic. The search process… can never be verified as capable of retrieving all information relevant to a problem or theory.**
He goes on: “independently created pieces of knowledge can harbor an unseen, unknown, and unintended pattern. And so it is that the world of recorded knowledge can yield genuinely new discoveries.” What he means is that if the right pair of eyes has a chance to look into certain piles of information, piles that no one before him thought to look at, he can not only find things that others forgot about, but can connect them to other forgotten about or problematic pieces of info to make something new.

The problem is that “the quantity of published information is far larger than one person can read in any reasonable span of time.” But, given a wide enough search one may come up with some surprising results. With such a search, Swanson found that a treatment had already been found for a disease that had baffled the medical field for some time. Research on fish oil and research on Raynaud’s disease had, independently, been circling the same solution. Yet neither knew of what the other was doing. All Swanson did was take off the blinders, conduct a wider search and bridge the gap: fish oil helps relieve symptoms of Raynaud’s disease. And he did this with limited knowledge of the disease or the medical field in general.

So the next time someone tells you they have found something new, and you know for a fact that they don’t have access to their own personal Hubble, or hadron Collider, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re full of malarkey. As the Bible, Shakespeare, etc. etc. have said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Just look, you’ll see.

-By Adam Shutz

*This claim of mine leaves aside discoveries that no one could have made prior, either because the equipment to make the discovery is too expensive and therefore only a massive undertaking could lead to the discovery, or because technology just recently gave us the capability to prove said hypothetical discovery X.

**From: “Undiscovered Public Knowledge.” The Library Quarterly 56:2 (102-118)

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