By Daniel Hubbard | June 23, 2013
The famous biologist Edward O. Wilson has written that,
“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.”
That is research in a nutshell.
A poet asks the big questions and looks for the big patterns.
- What if this isn’t him in these records?
- What if they married in America not Ireland?
- What if a birth record doesn’t match the death record made not long after? (one I’ve run across)
- What if he died while traveling? (my great-great-grandfather’s death notice was found in a Brooklyn newspaper—Brooklyn is about 1000 miles from where he lived but he died there.)
- What might it mean that a five-year-old is listed as head of household? (another one I’ve run across)
The poet sees the subject from different angles. When starting out with a problem that is not straightforward the imagination needs to run free over the possibilities and weave together creative hypotheses. Thoughts can push at the envelope that confines them. Questions can arise. These thoughts and hypotheses don’t all need to be correct. If one is correct you reach your goal. They don’t need to prove to be sensible. Twenty crazy thoughts, might include two worth pursuing and one that proves to be miraculous rather than fatuous.
You might use your imagination to weed out the impossible ideas, and deemphasize the unlikely but hard problems are often hard because the answers were not likely or the paths to them are faint and winding.
It is time to ask the what-ifs and wonder if a clue might be found in some unexpected place or if many tiny constraints might be combined to point the way.
Once the research starts, the researcher needs to become an accountant.
- What is the data? I’ll record that.
- Where did the data originate? I’ll record that.
- What does the new data mean in combination with the old? I’ll record that.
- Where does this data imply I should look next? I’ll record that.
- Where did I look and not find anything? I’ll record that.
Once the accountant has enough written down, it might be time for the poet to return or the accountant in you might solve the problem on the first try.