16.329 messy science

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Tue Nov 19 2002 - 01:52:33 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 329.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Sun, 17 Nov 2002 07:46:13 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: messy science

    Having just finished the book I can recommend with fresh enthusiasm James D
    Watson's The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the
    Structure of DNA (New York, 1968). It of course makes a very important bit
    of science accessible to the likes of us (delete yourself if you're a
    biochemist or similar). But what particularly fascinated me was the close,
    daily account of the "context of discovery", as it is called, and the role
    of physical modelling in discovery. The messiness of it all is instructive,
    and a useful defense against arguments that would have algorithmic thought
    (in the form, say, of an expert system) as an adequate representation of
    what actually happens when new knowledge is discovered -- or perhaps more
    accurately, made.

    The setting -- the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge and environs, with some
    attention to wrongly neglected activity at King's College London -- might
    lead one to think that for cultural reasons the portrayal is of casual,
    even quirky but brilliantly effective research. Watson is an American,
    however, and Linus Pauling, another American (who almost got there first),
    is famous for equally unalgorithmic approaches to research. A child at play
    comes to mind. No, it would seem there's something very important about how
    knowledge is made in this account, don't you think?



    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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