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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

5 April 2013

Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine and the Digital Humanities


I’m very much looking forward to the symposium being organized at the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities next week, Shared Horizons:Data, Biomedicine and the Digital Humanities.  The involvement of such important sponsors as the NEH, the US Department of Health and Research Councils UK make this a particularly exciting and enticing event. Ever since I participated in a pioneering symposium on Reconnecting the Science and Humanities through Digital Libraries organized by my friend Kevin Kiernan at the University of Kentucky in 1995, it has been clear to me that one major role of the digital humanities is to be at the forefront of building links between the arts, humanities and sciences so as to create new methods and insights across a range of disciplines. The digital humanities is potentially a bridgehead between the sciences and the arts and humanities, and Shared Horizons is one of the most exciting and ambitious attempts yet to realize this vision. 

I’m attending the event on behalf of Research Councils UK, but in preparing myself for the symposium, my thoughts inevitably ran towards the history of my own Institution, King’s College London. King’s College includes the celebrated medical schools at Guy’s Hospital (where Keats studied medicine), at St Thomas’s Hospital (founded in 1173 in honour of the recently martyred Becket) and King’s College Hospital itself (where Lister introduced antiseptic surgery), as well as the world famous Institute of Psychiatry. There could hardly be a better place in the world to think about links between the humanities and biological sciences than King’s College London.

If you walk past the Strand campus of King’s College, you will see among the pictures of famous people associated with the College, pictures of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, who were both involved in the pioneering studies of DNA at King’s College from 1945 to 1960. A lot of the preliminary work which led to the building of the first model of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick took place at King’s, which was recognized by the fact that the Nobel Prize awarded in 1962 for the analysis of the structure of DNA was given to the troika of Watson, Crick and Wilkins. Yet of course the role of King’s College London in the discovery of DNA has been overshadowed by controversy, particularly over suggestions that the role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery has not been sufficiently acknowledged and that Maurice Wilkins gave Crick and Watson access to her research without her permission.

A natural first starting point for me in preparing for the Shared Horizons event was to read Maurice Wilkins’s autobiography, The Third Man of the Double Helix (Oxford, 2003) – a title which Wilkins firmly insisted in his preface had been imposed on him by his publisher. Wilkins’s autobiography is less well known than Watson’s account of the discovery of DNA, Double Helix, but it is also a compelling read. Watson described Wilkins as a tragic figure, because he had worked on DNA for so long but failed to realize the secret of its structure, and this sense of a man who was utterly committed to science but was also in many ways deeply unhappy and frustrated, longing for a family life but unable for many years to form relaxed and friendly relationships with women, is what makes the Third Man of the Double Helix such a remarkable book. Wilkins was involved in many of the greatest scientific events of the twentieth century – the development of radar, the building of the atom bomb, DNA – but this was undercut by immense loneliness, so bad that Wilkins more than once contemplated suicide. He seemed only to find contentment in his personal life in 1958 when he married Patricia Chidgey. Wilkins is very frank about his difficulties with women and, while Watson felt that Rosalind Franklin made difficulties for Wilkins, Franklin herself must have found the desperately frustrated Wilkins an almost impossible colleague.

Wilkins’s autobiography should be one of the first books read by anyone who wants to work in the digital humanities, because it is one of the most thoughtful and honest discussions of the possibilities and problems of interdisciplinarity. During the London Blitz, a German bomber aiming for Waterloo Bridge missed, and dropped a number of bombs on the quadrangle between King’s College London and Somerset House. After the war, it was realized that the bomb craters offered an opportunity for expansion in a college always short of space, and it was decided to build new scientific laboratories in the space that had been created by the bombs. King’s College London has recruited John Randall from St Andrew’s University as Professor of Physics, who brought Wilkins with him. Randall had begun as a scientist working for GEC, and had shown true entrepreneurial vision in securing equipment and expertise to build on the work undertaken during the war to improve radar.  Randall recognized the potential for the synergies between the separate scientific disciplines of physics and biology. He realized that the availability of strong Departments of physics, chemistry, biology and medicine made King’s College London an ideal place to start a new interdisciplinary programme of biophysics research. Randall secured the funding and support to build in the old bomb craters a new set of laboratories specifically designed to foster a new interdisciplinary study of biophysics. For digital humanists, the way in which the discovery of DNA had its roots in the creation of this avowedly interdisciplinary institute should be an inspiration, and I think it appropriate that the first Department of Digital Humanities in the world should be created in the college which had the vision to allow the creation of the Randall Institute.

Yet Wilkins illustrates many of the tensions and difficulties of boldly creating such new types of research. The College bureaucrats found such innovation unsettling and threatening; according to Wilkins, ‘College bureaucrats were disturbed by Randall’s long-distance telephone bills, and stuffy academics were offended by his unusual plan to mix physics and biology (traditionally very separate) and by what they saw as his pushy style’ (p. 98). Randall showed a genius for obtaining grant money, and his institute developed very rapidly. Yet this created further tensions. While Randall himself allowed researchers a free hand in developing their investigations, he became frustrated at the way in which he became seen as someone whose main function was to pull in grants and build infrastructure. He wanted to be engaged in front-line science, but his researchers became resentful if he tried to get involved. The involvement of different disciplines created tensions, as is apparent in the way in which Rosalind Franklin was recruited partly because of her expertise in x-ray diffraction which would support the work that Wilkins had been doing, but Franklin (apparently having been given an assurance by Randall that she would be working independently) was unwilling simply to support Wilkins’s work. While Wilkins makes it clear that the discovery of the structure of DNA could only have been achieved by the interdisciplinary approach pioneered at King’s, he also provides a vivid series of cautionary tales about the problems and tensions of collaboration, which all digital humanities scholars would be well advised to contemplate at length.

Wilkins perfectly embodies many of the tensions and dilemmas of team working. He emphasizes strongly how in his view the day of the lone scientist making world-shattering discoveries and deductions (like James Clarke Maxwell, another great figure in the history of King’s) were gone. Wilkins’s narrative sows how Crick and Watson did not simply ‘discover’ DNA; their work was one piece in a jigsaw of research by many scientists stretching back many years. In Wilkins’s view, the days when a scientist could aspire to conquer single-handed a great scientific problem, like a mountaineer conquering Everest, were past. But, nevertheless, it is evident from every page of Wilkins’s autobiography that he was oppressed by a sense that, if things had only worked out differently, he could easily have discovered the double helix structure himself. For this, Wilkins blames flaws in the interdisciplinary structure of Randall’s lab at King’s. Colleagues didn’t share information enough, and kept developments to themselves (an ironic criticism, since Wilkins himself seems to have been painfully shy and found talking to colleagues like Franklin difficult). Wilkins contrasts this with Watson and Crick who, he said, were utterly open with each other, fearless in their mutual self-criticism, even to the point of risking their friendship. In many ways, Wilkins’s book is a plea for the open sharing of data in research. It could, of course, be claimed that such pleading for openness was the result of a guilty conscience in showing Crick and Watson the famous image of DNA made by Rosalind Franklin without her knowledge. Nevertheless, Wilkins’s plea for openness seems particularly pertinent as we prepare to consider possible links between the digital humanities and bioinformatics in the Shared Horizons event at MITH, so I can’t resist wrapping up this meditation on the role of interdisciplinarity, collaboration and openness in the discovery of the structure of DNA by quoting the final paragraph of Maurice Wilkins’s book:

‘Open minds are crucial in the future. The concept of openness connects with breadth of mind (like Priestley, of oxygen fame, who in his Chapel read from all the Holy Books). When I use the word ‘open’ I must emphasise that I do not mean open in the static sense, as when one waits passively to receive messages from the outside. To establish dialogue there must be interaction going in and out. It is a creative process, and one needs to be actively exploring one’s own mind, and the mind of the other participant. Energy, creativity, intuition and careful thought may all be needed. The same attention may be required to the concept of open dialogue itself: looking to the future, we need much further enquiry into the idea of open dialogue. The process may be tedious, exhausting and exasperating, and demand much imagination (and good luck!), but without such processes there may be no future for humanity. Perhaps with open dialogue, we may hope for a more creative and joyful community’. (pp. 265-6)

I can’t think of a better epigram for our Shared Horizons symposium.

I couldn't resist adding some more forward-looking reflections to this post. 'Thinking About Fluorescent Bunnies' can be read here.  

Postscript, 18 April 2013

The Department of Digital Humanities is currently based in a dingy outpost of King's at 26-29 Drury Lane (opposite the theatre showing Warhorse). By a strange coincidence, it was in these offices at Drury Lane that Maurice Wilkins spent the end of his career at King's. Following his Nobel Prize in 1962, the biophysics work had begun to outgrow the subterranean Wheatstone Laboratory, and a lease was taken on a old seed warehouse in Drury Lane. In 1964, the beautifully appointed new home of the Biophysics Unit at 26-29 Drury Lane was opened by the Queen Mother (picture below). The unit was later renamed the Randall Institute in honour of its founder. Wilkins's autobiography includes some evocative photographs of social events at Drury Lane in the 1960s. It is a strange coincidence that a Digital Humanities Department, where issues of interdisciplinarity are a central concern, should be currently housed in a building specifically converted for a pioneering unit of interdisciplinary science. It is a connection we should be proud of. Much more about King's and DNA, including further information about Drury Lane, can be found in this excellent online exhibiton by the King's Archive Service: DNA the King's Story.





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