This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

The Hive Recap: By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried

There Be Monsters Here
By Cosima Herter, Series Science Consultant

On the eve of this recent New Year, my dear friend Siobhan presented me with an unusual, but rather exquisite gift. “There be monsters here,” she remarked as she handed it to me with her customary mischievous wink, and a hug. The package contained a current map, but not one I’d ever seen before—it is an actual map of uncharted waters. [1] It displays nothing but that strange, flat-green color common to aeronautical maps, the black crisscross lines of longitude and latitude designating a small area in the northern Pacific Ocean, and a footnote that reads “Assign Longitude Values as Required.” It hangs above my desk now so I can see it every day when I sit down to work. I’ve drawn a little picture of a boat on a sticky note, which I’ve named Intuition (in honor of Bucky Fuller who loved to sail), and I like to randomly position it around the map, then just sit and focus on it. [2] For the record, this has never been effective in calling down the recalcitrant Muse when I need Her most, it doesn’t help me to either meditate or think any better, and neither does that little boat silently whisper any secret strategies to help embolden me when faced by dragons. But I do it anyway, hoping some day it might.

Despite being a mystical disappointment, this map does regularly serve as an effective reminder for a few things. First, to have the courage to try things I might not feel particularly competent to try. Competency, not to mention expertise, comes in stages, it’s a learned process, and learning requires an alarming amount of courage — it’s often exhausting, isolating, and grueling. But it’s also exhilarating and wonderfully gratifying. That map clearly speaks to the obvious metaphor of bravely setting out into unknown territory, of intrepidly exploring that which has been left unexplored, of being undeterred by possible dangers that lurk seductively close on the other side of the horizon, of having the fortitude to strategize one’s own course according to one’s own index, and of having faith that with enough perseverance one will find safe passage to lucrative shores. Learning also requires an enormous amount of generosity. We learn and accumulate knowledge through sharing, and that includes the mistakes as much as the achievements.

This map also calls into stark relief for me something else: finding an appropriate orientation towards some goal profits as much from failure as from success. Effective strategies to navigate unknown terrain often come by way of laborious trial and error, by experimenting with different ways of solving problems, some which work and others that don’t. This is made doubly difficult because we are often blind to the future consequences of our current actions—all that poking and prodding in the dark might just as easily let loose the hornets as it might locate a buried chest of gold.

These points also serve as a nice paraphrase for the history of science, especially the experimental methodology that Francis Bacon advocated almost 400 years ago: “It would be an unsound fancy and self-contradictory to expect that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried.” The scientist must be brave explorer, a fearless interrogator, a systematic designer of experiments that can be effectively repeated, a meticulous laborer, and finally, endowed with tremendous creativity so as to approach obstinate problems in novel and innovative ways. I don’t want to get carried away with romantic tropes of intrepid scientists building a New Atlantis, but the point is this: Bacon believed that the role of science is to acquire knowledge, and in order to do so the scientist must be someone who is audacious enough to enter uncharted waters to obtain it.

The search for knowledge and the limitations of knowledge both have a long history of being represented geographically, and often quite graphically with narratives built around sea-faring journeys into the “Unknown.” Indeed, the frontispiece to Bacon’s Great Instauration depicts precisely this—two ships that have passed through the Pillars of Hercules into the Straight of Gibraltar, underscored by an inscription from the Hebrew Book of Daniel 12:4, which reads, “Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia” (“Many shall pass through and knowledge will be the greater.”) While Bacon certainly had great respect for the individual’s courage to risk himself for the sake of knowledge, he was adamant that this kind of undertaking should not simply be for the individual’s glory or gain. Instead, he had a much grander and altruistic goal. The accumulation of knowledge is a collaborative endeavor, a great communal project which must be done for the benefit all of humanity. Just like the great explorers who mapped the contours of the earth for all those who might come after, science should be approached as an effort to add to public coffers of knowledge for the prosperity of all humankind. We assign longitude values not for ourselves alone, we chart the waters for everyone. Science is a collective effort for collective gains.

He also believed that for science to be a fully realized enterprise there needed to be a complete renovation of all scientific activities (more accurately, natural philosophy) to date, and a systematically designed standard program be put in place. We need to rid ourselves of all the false thinking and assumptions that impede our abilities to learn about and understand the natural world around us. [3] We need to develop new ways to organize, understand, and utilize raw data; facts must be arranged and understood in such a way so as to infer general principles and laws of nature. We need to recognize that logical deduction alone is insufficient in proffering knowledge; physical experimentation was key to Bacon’s project. Finally, we need to standardize those experimental methods of inquiry. This is not simply repeatability for its own sake, but because repeatability allows for the collaborative effort of both confirming proofs and sharing knowledge. Bacon really did believe he could plan it out, and effectively standardize and implement methodologies by which science is done (and just as importantly, communicated). If we could just get rid of the impediments to knowledge, and conduct experiments in certain kinds of ways, what could possibly go wrong?

It turns out that science involves much more trial and error than Bacon imagined. I don’t just mean insofar as developing and employing particular strategies for particular experiments. Rather I’m referring to the long durée of the history of science more generally. There is just so much room for error: errors about hypotheses, errors in perspective, errors in implementation and utility, errors in practice, errors in judgment—sensory, philosophical, and ethical. Science, both as a practice and an epistemological framework, is in many ways, just as much a history of the human project of stumbling along until we hit on something that ‘works,’ as it is a systematic attempt to apply those well worked out principles and proven theories towards greater and greater knowledge. Certainly not all science is simply a vulgar matter of poking at things with sticks, but sometimes it is.

Finally, that map reminds me that no matter how meticulously I might try to plot out a course for myself (trivial or grand), I cannot escape the unforeseen contingencies that might derail my planned trajectory, and throw me into situations for which I have no cartography. You know the kind of scenario I’m talking about: those events, relationships, or ideas that you just couldn’t see coming, the ones that disrupt—for good or for ill—the best laid plans, and force you to re-navigate the course, or worse, to scramble to draw up a whole new one without really knowing where it’s going to take you. Sometimes they are the outcomes of past choices only now manifesting with material consequence. Other times, they are random improbable events that run derelict to the expected order by which you’ve set your aspirational compass. The Unexpected really has a way of screwing with your sense of direction. Like, for example, that time I was shocked to encounter a strange man, in the middle of the tundra, carrying a shovel and pail, who was prospecting for diamonds; he just seemed to appear out of nowhere.[4] After that chance meeting I left my job, and spent the following 6 years in diamond exploration camps all over the arctic. And then there was that time I came home to find my house burning down, and Graeme was kind enough to put me up in his home for several months. It was then, on his front porch late one night that the first Clone Conversation happened between us. Quite literally, out of the ashes of a totally unpredictable event was born a most gloriously unexpected collaborative opportunity for me, with some of the most remarkable and brave people I know.

There be monsters here, indeed.


[1] I’m not even sure if this should still technically called a “map!”
[2] Ok, let’s be honest… usually I’m just daydreaming, and blankly staring at it.
[3] This is the basis for his four Idols: Idols of the Mind, Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Theatre, and Idols of the Marketplace.
[4] You may be wondering what I was doing wandering around the central arctic barren lands myself that day: that too was the strange consequence of another unexpected, and unrelated, encounter. But that’s different story.

This story has multiple pages:

Read More