I’d like to think that I could learn at least one new thing every day; some days it might be something small, trivial even, like today, Waitrose are advertising half price champagne for this week only.
On other days it might be a whole new insight.
OK, so new insights, new ideas, are the Holy Grail for writers in a crowded field in which fundamentally most stories have already been told; I’d settle for a new way of describing or dramatising an already known idea. But I do continue to strive to broaden my horizons, as I think that is a fundamental characteristic of us all; when we stop looking for something new, we’ve stopped altogether.
This notion was brought into high relief for me today when I was watching The Gene Code on BBC4. I’ll be honest, much of the science went well over my head; what always grips me about these sorts of science programmes is the story of the development of the knowledge in the field, and the individual scientists involved.
The first part of the short series took the story to the point at which Crick and Watson had discovered the double helix structure of DNA. This second part ran through the developments of the study of DNA and genes in the 50 years since, and brought the story up to date; from how DNA could first be systematically analysed on those bar charts familiar to all fans of television forensic procedurals, to the mapping of the human genome, through the identification of specific genes linked to particular degenerative conditions to the current still open questions.
Each stage generated tons of new information and new theories about where the science would lead next; miracle cures for everything from Alzheimer’s to cancer were mooted as being just around the corner in the 1980.
The geneticists interviewed more recently drew back from those ambitious timetables. One professor in particular said ‘the more we learn, the more we are aware of how little we actually understand.’ The more they investigated the genome information they have uncovered, the more complex it appeared.
It’s quite a thought isn’t it? It’s so refreshing to hear highly expert people speak knowledgeably and engagingly about the complex systems they spend their lives studying, and then at the end say, but of course we hardly know anything; but we’ll keep on trying to find out the next thing.
The strongest parallel I can think of in my sphere is people who have barely skimmed the surface of learning a new language who claim to be ‘nearly fluent’, blissfully ignorant of the amused indulgence of their interlocutors, while someone who has spent years studying at school, university and beyond, would usually describe themselves as able to ‘get by’, as all they can hear are the errors they make when they speak.
It’s when we assume we know enough to stop striving for something better that we fail. Who likes a know it all, anyway?
I think it’s Samuel Beckett who said ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’
I keep on writing so that with my next piece I can fail better…..