Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Defence of Not Knowing

In the 1960s, Dr. Janet Davison Rowley became curious about the role of chromosomes. This curiosity arose out of her previous clinical work with children with Downs syndrome. At the time, she had small children herself, and could only work part time pursuing this particular curiosity. Since all she really needed was time on a high-end microscope and enough money to pay a babysitter, she teamed up with a researcher, who already had a decently sized grant. With a level of backing that did little more than pay for the babysitter, she then made a major breakthrough, one that affected most of all the future research of the link between leukemia and chromosome translocations. Her discovery showed that chromosomes 8 and 21 had broken and switched ends, which meant all sorts of things went to hell in a hand basket, and people got sick and died.
Dr. Rowley - worth listening to.
I mention this because Rowley was recently quoted in a NYT interview, talking about this experience: I was doing observationally driven research. That’s the kiss of death if you’re looking for funding today. We’re so fixated now on hypothesis-driven research that if you do what I did, it would be called a “fishing expedition,” a bad thing. Well, if you don’t know anything, you can’t have a sensible hypothesis. I keep saying that fishing is good. You’re fishing because you want to know what’s there.

I say, You go girl!  As a result of her observations, Rowley is now regarded as the matriarch of modern cancer genetics. I also mention this because it feels as if it validates some of my own approach to research. Lots of the time, I don’t know what I am looking for; all I can say is that I am paying attention. I am on a fishing expedition. Not that I am about to make any major scientific breakthroughs, let alone find a cure for cancer. Not at all, but that’s okay.

Recently, I was at a home in the southwest of England of a 4th cousin or some such, maybe we are 3rd cousins, I forget. He had a great swat of family archives, so I did what I usually do. I photographed, I listened, and I also transcribed what needed doing right then and there on the spot. I hadn’t a clue where the heck it might all lead. Then I came home, organized the data a bit, and then like any sensible person, I put it all aside to go totally nutbar for the Christmas season.

In the past couple of weeks, one thing has led to another. First, I digitally juiced up the pictures, nothing fancy – just cropping and adding contrast or more light, and then put them in folders with other photographs of like interest. Then I set about finding out what I knew about them. Not much, so I dug deeper. Where were the places in the photos? Who were the people? Why were they there?

As a result, I have just posted several photos of houses built on The Peak in Hong Kong in the late 1800s, as well as five page essay which gives a thumbnail sketch of some of the people who lived there. Lo and behold, great swats of them were not British colonialists – as one might have expected - but Irish. Good thing I was just looking. Good thing I had no theory.

The photos and the essay are now on my web site.

Enjoy, and as always, let me know if you have more to add. There is always more to learn. After all, I’m just fishing.

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