March 4th, 2004

Fishy Circumstances


As a PhD candidate, I am working on interesting, important, original research. I know my research is original: it's work that no one else has done. I'm the world expert on my subject. I know it's interesting because I think it is, and because various other people agree with me. But why is it important? Why is any of it important, other than the ambient cause of contributing to the knowledge of humankind?

My research won't cure cancer. It won't improve diets. It won't prove anything exciting about Shakespeare or Chaucer. It won't revolutionize the way we think about the Middle Ages. It won't cause a major tidal shift among iconographers.

It will make people think about windmills and hourglasses in a slightly different way, but how many people really want to do that? How many people care about these things? And if caring is such a specialty, then why is my work important? I don't just ask the question as it pertains to me personally. It's an issue many people in my field grapple with. Just because no history has been written yet on, say, the science of playmobil, doesn't mean it needs to be written. Fields are sometimes neglected for a reason.

I know that the history of technology, that the history of technology in the middle ages in particular, is an up-and-coming field. It shows us new and interesting things about the time period, for those who care about it, as I do. But what makes it really important? What qualifies as importance?

(This question was effectively posed to me this afternoon and I struggled with it. I'm still thinking, and since there are a fair many graduate students, academics, and other bright people who follow what I post, I thought I'd ask you for some perspective.)