Monday, January 17, 2011

Lost in the Jungle: considering the obligations of an Idea Hunter

The small plane went down in the dense Ecuadorian forest, and all on board were lost shortly thereafter. I vividly remember the obituary of one of those on board -- Ted Parker -- as if it were yesterday. The New York Times, of August 13, 1993, reported that he, and colleague Alwyn Gentry [also killed in the crash], "... reputedly could discover more about the life of an unexplored rain forest in a week than most other scientists could in months or even years." Characterized as "search & rescue" specialists for endangered species, the two worked for the McArthur Foundation-funded Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Team, and at the time of their death it was estimated that: "Two-thirds of the unpublished, critically important information on the Andes went with them in a split second." This was the trigger that etched their story into my mind. This terrible sense of loss, not only of such young and gifted scientists, but the loss of what they knew but had never shared.

I recalled Parker and Gentry in reading Richard Conniff’s “Dying for Discovery” blog, today, in The New York Times. These men were living the hunt for new ideas, and doing it as well as anyone in their field had ever done -- one estimate was that “they were worth twenty!” But, they apparently were not sharing the information in a dependable fashion.... their loss was our loss!

Don’t “professional” idea-hunters have an obligation to do something worthwhile with their ideas? Isn’t the image of the isolated scientist, alone in his/her academic tower, an anathema to all that we look for from those in our society who are fortunate enough to be engaged in the hunt for new ideas? Why was this knowledge not being shared? Was it truly completely lost, or was it, in fact, being shared as tacit knowledge, and thus unorganized and possibly invisible? Either way, the story served as a stark warning that the hunt for new ideas is not simply done for the thrill of the chase, but hopefully for larger purposes.

My late and great friend Tom Vollmann used to ask in appraising somebody’s contribution: “Did they move the ball?” I would argue that the Idea Hunter has an obligation to put, in one form or another, the ideas that they are hunting “into play.” Almost inevitably this means saving/sharing these ideas in a form that allows the rest of us to “move the ball” on the basis of such new insights and knowledge. The “hunt” afterall doesn’t end with the hunting, but with the use that is made of the catch.

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