[Humanist] 25.702 problems of long duration?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Feb 7 08:41:27 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 702.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 07 Feb 2012 07:38:09 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: problems of long duration

Alexander Borst begins his article, "Fly Vision: Moving Into the Motion
Detection Circuit" (Current Biology 21.24, 20 December 2011), with the 
following assertion, in order to call attention to the importance of 
what he is about to announce:

> For a problem to become really famous, it needs to be important,
> interesting, and unsolved for a long time. This is what happened, for
> example, in mathematics, when Pierre de Fermat formulated his
> innocent-looking theorem stating that for n larger than 2, no integer
> solutions for x, y, and z can be found to hold the relationship x**n
> + y**n = z**n. Almost 350 years had to pass before Andrew Wiles
> published the proof of the theorem, a story which even found its way
> into popular science books. In neuroscience, a problem was formulated
> about 50 years ago that was again innocent at first sight, but which
> has proved to be hard to crack. This problem deals with direction
> selectivity in motion vision — the capability of nerve cells to
> respond differently when a visual object moves in one or in the
> opposite direction....

Here, unsurprisingly, we are in the rhetorical domain of problems and 
solutions that, one could say, is inappropriate for the humanities. Yet 
in the digital humanities, I'd think, we do have situations in which 
talking in terms of solutions to conceptual as well as technical 
problems makes sense. Take, for example, the conceptual and technical 
problem of interface design (in the broadest sense) for digital editions 
of verbal and musical texts. We have been picking at this problem, esp 
for verbal text, for a very long time and still are asking what a 
"digital edition" might look like that someone might like to look at it. 
As a scholarly community -- I will not be deflected from using that word 
to express the realities of our social arrangements -- we differ in 
several respects from mathematicians and biologists, but I wonder if 
Borst's way of identifying worthy research questions does not also hold 
for us.

So, let me ask, what are our long-standing intellectual hard nuts to crack?


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor,
Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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