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Eureka! Moments

By Daniel Hubbard | July 8, 2012

Everyone loves a eureka moment. But what is it that makes a eureka moment? There are many, many answers to that question. Anytime that something makes a sudden move from being “invisible” to “right there,” it can give that Eureka feeling. I don’t know how long it takes on average for a genealogist to have the first experience of staring at names in a register for the fifth time and then suddenly realize that the “Hawkins” they’ve seen before is really the “Hankins” for whom they have been searching but something like that eventually happens to everyone.

There is another kind of eureka producing event. It doesn’t even require a discovery. It can be enough to form the hypothesis. I think of it as the two-birds-with-one-stone eureka moment. You’ve got a problem. It doesn’t make much sense. You’re concentrating on it to the exclusion of a few other things that don’t make much sense either. Then suddenly you realize that there is a scenario that makes sense out of many problems. Eureka! When you discover the proof of that hypothesis you get another chance to say, “eureka!”

Missing Persons

I was researching a family that was clear as the nose on my face until they migrated, then they vanished. In some sense that isn’t so strange but in this case I knew exactly where they were. I knew to what post office people back East sent their mail. The area was more or less crawling with their relatives. All those relatives appeared in the census but not this family. All those relatives appeared on plat maps—not this family. Relatives appeared in land records—not this family.

At the same time, among those relatives, I had a disappearing husband, whose only trace seemed to be his surname briefly attached to his wife and child in the short time before she remarried. There was a family story about a fight and prison for the husband but that led nowhere either.

I never formed the hypothesis that my missing family and their relative’s disappearing husband were connected. It would have been so farfetched that I wouldn’t have gotten a eureka moment out of it. More of a “Yah, right” moment. Turned out there were many connections. When I found it, I did get a eureka from it. One discovery and two problems solved.

Puzzle Assembly

It is a situation that occurs when putting together a puzzle. You know it all fits together somehow. You’ve found some pieces that fit together. You have few blobs assembled. Each with a few piece in them but you don’t even know where those blobs fit in the big scheme of things, let alone have any reason to believe that they might be closely related. Then suddenly you find the piece that connects some of those blobs together. Eureka!

It is the exact opposite of the independence that you want in your data. You want the answers to fit together into a coherent whole. You want a bunch of pieces and blobs of pieces to come together and give the big picture. You want your hypotheses and discoveries to reveal a web of interdependence. Eureka.

July 4

While Americans were celebrating their independence (and perhaps, if genealogists, the independence of their data), particle physicists were celebrating connecting some more puzzle pieces or blobs thereof. The new discovery that appears to be the Higgs Boson is that kind of eureka. The hypothesis is now nearly fifty years old. It fills a hole in our understanding of something called the weak force. Not something one normally encounters in a way we can notice but we wouldn’t be here without it. The universe would be a totally different place without it, even though we can’t be aware of it directly. Though, if you ever have a PET scan, you can thank the weak force.

The Higgs also solves a problem that some interactions between particles would otherwise be calculated to happen with more than 100% probability. If you think about it, it is impossible to decide what that would even mean. In genealogical terms it would be like calculating that someone had 1.5 biological fathers. It just doesn’t work that way.

The Higgs even gives insight into the origins of mass itself. So many puzzle pieces are connected. Eureka.

Two (or more) Birds with One Stone

This kind of eureka occurs when you reach a tipping point. When you know enough to be on the verge of fitting together separate parts into a unified whole. It only comes after a lot of hard work. It only comes when some disparate facts have been fit together into small pieces of what might become the bigger picture.

In principle, stripped to its barest bones, one could do genealogical research with nothing but birth records. You wouldn’t get very far but knowing parentage is that bare minimum. Most people, without really thinking about it, also want records of marriage and death. A few more records to gather but not much of a repertoire and it still won’t get very far. Most people wouldn’t really find it very interesting to do the research or even to learn about the results. To make any real progress, most people quickly start looking at other records—records that require inferences to be drawn, even if only simple ones. In the end, good, try-every-possible-angle genealogy becomes indistinguishable from family history and in many cases, local history. Every scrap of information relevant to the people of primary interest is pulled in, historical context begins to connect. That is when the results of the research start to come to life. That is when we really start to understand. That is when our view becomes sufficiently rich to be captivating. Formerly separate pieces connect. Eureka.

That kind of eureka moment in genealogy comes from working to understand communities, tracing neighbors, learning about associates, studying distant relatives. Wherever there are connections that can be studied, there is a chance that you will find that one connection, that one event, that will cause pieces and groups of pieces to suddenly be connected. Eureka.


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