Issue Date: September 14, 2009
Purposeful Holy Grails
The Insights article titled "A Crusade Against Holy Grails" was entertaining enough, but I was moved to respond after reading two disparate letter responses under the heading "Higher Plane of Hype" (C&EN, March 30, page 34, and June 29, page 4). The first letter, from Patrick Lofgren, decries the use of superlatives in describing work in scientific areas, opting for the rather passive option of "to be revealed in the fullness of time."
Although no one will be in favor of language that obfuscates the underlying science, I think today's reality is that the physical sciences need to compete with multiple other fields for generating support and interest. Waiting for others to generate enthusiasm for work that may genuinely deserve support does
no one any favors, especially when we are looking to connect more strongly with the general public. I don't have time to sort through multiple modest descriptions of work, so I don't mind hearing an author state, in an interesting way, why a particular piece of work is important. If I'm interested enough to follow up, I can generate my own conclusion, as I do in many other aspects of my life.
The letter from my good friend Ed Chandross indirectly points out the vast untapped areas of religion, mythology, and modern culture that can be used as sources of descriptors for scientific quests. If C&EN really does have a list banning such phrases as holy grail, clever authors will merely shift to equivalent, but perhaps less used narratives such as those of "Gilgamesh," "The Odyssey," "The Wizard of Oz," and "The Lord of the Rings." If anyone starts quoting from "Don Quixote," though, then this is a signal that this work can safely be ignored.
Morgan Hill, Calif.
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