pebbles on the beach of Hinlopenstretet

Discovery is intimately intertwined with the discoverer. There are plenty of accounts in encyclopaedias and textbooks that treat the narrative of life as if it were a scenario for a documentary movie.  Event seems to tread inexorably upon event, fact upon fact, in a chronology recited by rote.   The real business somehow seems to be absent.   Neither the awe the story should command is there, nor its curiously human dimension, as when one discoverer wrestles with his rival to uncover history, or a stop for fresh water on Hinlopenstretet reveals hidden treasure. My own account, which I call an unauthorized history, will pick a more idiosyncratic way through thousands of millions of years of life.  No event of real moment will be omitted, but it is impossible to be compendious: there is simply too much history, and the story will be shaped as much by what has been left out as by what has been included. Issac Newton famously described his sampling of phenomena from a physical universe as a kind of beachcombing, whereby he could pick up only the brightest shells that caught his eye from an infinite litter on the strand.  Like the pebbles on the beach of Hinlopenstretet, history, too, is a succession of endless details, and there is an infinite choice whether to pick this one or that. And where my own experience with peoples or places will serve to bring the process of investigation alive then I shall make diversions, the better to illuminate the way forward. Scientists are supposed to eliminate their personal voice, which no doubt works admirably for technical journals, but such spurious objectivity jettisons an awareness of much of what makes the process of discovery exciting, interesting, and informed with the whole inventory of our frailties and virtues.

Richard Fortney, Life: a natural history of the first four billion years of life on earth, Random House, 1997, p.23-24


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