Recycling of Knowledge
I was sitting in front of the computer we were trying to interface to our spectroscopy instrument. Dave Rank was sitting beside me reading a journal. He threw down the journal and exclaimed,
Dave was a bit of a curmudgeon. He was the founder of the spectroscopy group at Penn State and had run the physics department. He was famous for being abrasive and blunt. He was retired but liked to come into the lab and would talk with us grad students. He’d beat us up, too, if he thought we needed it. I liked him.
I asked, “What’s the problem?”
“Nothing really”, he said. “It’s just that the literature in optics recycles every 30 years. This article is the same stuff that we were publishing 30 years ago. There’s nothing new and it shouldn’t have been published at all.”
“How come the editors passed the article? Journal articles are supposed to be new results”, I said.
“Because, they are damn lazy fools! It’s a disgrace how people don’t know the history of their own field.” He then changed the subject and started grilling me about some optical question I was dealing with at the time.
The Role of Memory
I’ve thought about this quite a bit over the last decades and concluded that Dave was only partially correct. Yes people are lazy about ideas but the real issue is that they have no memory about things in the past!
Ideas stay in our heads only for a short period of time. There is a famous self help and spiritual teacher who writes a new book every 18 months or so. Most of the stuff he does is the same insights he wrote in the last book. The books are always bestsellers and they are good books. How can he do this and still sell the books? The reason is that people have forgotten the insight between the publication dates of the books. They’ve never assimilated the insights into their life and so it seems fresh to them. Now you probably think I’m critical of this teacher. Not at all. Because he has kept these fundamental insights in front of the public for 30 years so a greater number of people have had their lives changed. But most of the reading public hasn’t. They forgot, after the great read, what the point was.
You can imagine what it would be like if only one book was written about a particular piece of knowledge. A small group might remember the key concepts and use them. The majority would forget and the knowledge over time might be lost. There is enormous amounts of knowledge lost from the Greek and Arabic world over the last 2000 years.
What does clarity have to do with loss of knowledge and memory? Part 2 of the article will discuss this.