Thursday, March 25, 2010

a word about a word... and about apples

By the way... the title of the previous post refers to an example of one of the many things that I loved about the book Anathem. Stephenson has the most elegant gift for politely drawing the reader's attention to the etymologies of words that we use without a second thought. Data is one of these. Frequently throughout the story, as characters engage in philosophical or scientific discussions, they refer to the "the givens" -- that is the pieces of raw information on which further arguments may be based. At one point in the story a character refers to the discipline of Datonomy and the person with whom he is conversing recognizes this as the naming of "the givens." When I read that my mind went wild, started racing, knowing that I knew the connection but couldn't quite access it. "Data, datum, dat, date, dato, da..." and there it was: dar! The Spanish verb meaning to give.
In all of my years of education, studying sciences, statistics, even a bit of the philosophy of science, I'd been using the word data every day without even considering its root. And that insignificant little passage in Anathem was what finally brought it all home. Data (singular, datum) must be derived from the same root word as dar, hence a datum is a gift.
It puts a whole new spin on the language of basic scientific investigation. Data, which so often is seen as the raw output of an experiment -- the stuff that needs to be analyzed and refined before it assumes the far more noble and desirable status of information is, in its essence, the gift given to the investigator... and like all gifts (if they are truly given freely), it is up to the investigator to decide how best to use (or abuse) them. The gift itself is neither good nor bad. It is raw material that is waiting to be utilized. Like all gifts, data is sometimes deserved and sometimes not, and it is up to the recipient of the gift to recognize the value of the data... or not. There are many examples of seemingly serendipitous scientific discoveries. Careful examination of these tales will usually reveal that the hero had spent years (even decades) working hard, slogging away at a problem, and without that preparation, would not likely have been in the necessary frame of mind to recognize the value of the discovery. All the same... Fleming's agar plates did grow mold (an accident -- a gift), leading to the discovery of penicillin; Röntgen's cardboard barrier turned out not to be as opaque as he'd assumed (an accident -- a gift), leading to the discovery of X-rays; Jenner happened to pay attention to the wive's tale (another gift) about milk maids not getting smallpox, leading to the development of all subsequent vaccines; and maybe... just maybe... an apple fell on Newton's head.
OK... so most don't believe that a falling apple had much (if anything) to do with Newton's descriptions of this revolutionary force called gravity. All the same, it's become the symbol of serendipitous scientific discovery. Interesting that it's also the symbol of something else: sin. Or is it? Not really... the "apple" that Eve takes from the tree isn't the sin. The sin is the fact that she's taking it when told not to, and that is entirely beside the point (for now). The apple is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That's right... knowledge!!! The tree is the source of the knowledge. Just like data -- the raw pieces of stuff that are turned into information -- are the source of human knowledge -- the gift. Yeah... I'm stretching a bit now and I hope you'll all pounce with criticism, but still, the symbolism is just begging to be seen. And I'm certainly not the first to see it. Check out Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials! That tree of knowledge is the ultimate gift, the datum from which comes information -- information that accumulates to become knowledge and knowledge that is necessary to build a meaningful understanding of one the world in which we live. And remind me... who was it that told Eve not to eat of the fruit of that tree? Oh yeah... him again.


Unknown said...

So if the Biblical apple was really a pomegranate and if Newton really discovered gravity without suffering a fruit-induced concussion, where does this leave data and serendipity? In the hands (and minds) of true scientists, I guess!

Seth said...

But it's not just knowledge, it's the knowledge of good and evil. How does that change the interpretation? Knowledge isn't what we aren't supposed to have, we aren't supposed to know what is good and what is evil.

George Berger said...

Stephenson does modern student readers a great service with his stuff about "data." he stresses that an argument among people is possible and can proceed rationally only when all parties agree on some basic "givens," which are the argument's data. Better yet, he nowhere states that a datum is carved in stone, must be accepted, and must never be abandoned. Lots of bad philosophy was based on denying these ideas about data. Aristotle and Descartes are the chief culprits. It wasn't till about 1955 that Anglophone philosophers dropped these excessively stringent conditions.