Past caring

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The Independent Culture
A few weeks ago it was National Libraries Week. As a result, the Wellcome Trust in London organised a reception to celebrate its own library - a vast and rich repository of information on the history of biomedical science. To many scientists the word history is distasteful. After all, history is about the dusty past, while science is straining away into the gleaming future. Indeed, it is not uncommon to encounter the attitude among researchers that the only relevant discoveries were those made within the last year. Research papers dating, say, to the mid-1980s and cited in bibliographies, can sometimes elicit a sneer or a polite yet anxious enquiry as to whether everything is sufficiently "up to date".

Of course, science moves rapidly and that progress has to be reflected in the background reasoning leading up to a current series of experiments, or framing the latest hypothesis. But such experiments, findings and ideas do not spring complete from nothing. If an experiment is in reaction to some recent finding, it is likely not to be particularly exciting or ground-breaking anyway.

Recently I had the privilege of attending a reflective talk by the pioneer physiologist, Sir Andrew Huxley, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his identification and description of the physiochemical mechanisms of the fundamental signal generated by nerve cells: the action potential. Huxley's take-home message, as he looked back over a lifetime of magnificent science, was clear. He suggested that we are often hampered by overlooking or forgetting studies in the past that at the time seemed to have little relevance, but which could provide enormous insights. He also cautioned us against operating within the fashion of the day, to the exclusion of other approaches.

Awareness of the past can provide the contemporary scientist with a broader and more fundamental framework within which to operate, and can also open up a diverse range of strategies, free-wheeling away from the all-constraining bandwagon. Perhaps most importantly of all, it can restore humility as one looks back at the false dawns, cul-de-sacs and flashes of inspiration of preceding gen-erations as they struggled to articulate and prove their own ideas about how the world, and the individuals within it, worked.

Libraries such as the Wellcome should not be seen as the hideaways of arcane non-whizz kids cowering in the past, but as stations for infusions of the lifeblood of science. And it is not just the professionals who could benefit. The library is open to everyone, free of charge.

At the reception, the speakers expressing appreciation of how the Wellcome Library aided and abetted their professional endeavours covered a range of disciplines. They included the novelist Margaret Drabble, scientific journalist Geoff Watts and obstetrician and gynaecologist Wendy Savage; all were grateful users of the facilities. In a world of booming and buzzing in-your-face technology, of stratospheric price tags, and the ever- increasing prospect of a blinkered love affair with sci-fi, it was truly refreshing to be reminded that the problems of life can be approached by putting the premium back on deep understanding.

The Wellcome Trust Library is at 183 Euston Road, London NW1, tel: 0171 611 8582