Documenting the early years

Sitting in a café recently I had a laughing fit into my double expresso over a cartoon in the newspaper I was browsing. It depicted two English Literature professors (you knew they were English Literature professors because they sported bad hair, old-fashioned-looking spectacles and jackets, and bow ties). One was saying to the other “I’ve unearthed some fascinating D.H. Lawrence juvenilia”. In his hand was a piece of paper as shown below:
Bum, Poo, Willy
Anyway, once I had regained my composure this cartoon set me thinking. Literary juvenilia always excite the interest of the literati. I suppose it’s like seeing old photos of your loved one when they were much younger: you’re enchanted to see the early signs of those features that you have come to love in the mature individual. However, scientific juvenilia are not so celebrated, indeed they are hardly known. So, where might one start to look for such things?
How early should we look? I think we can discount earliest school years, though some such as Carl Friedrich Gauss show extraordinary talent very young. Usually serious science instruction does not start until a bit later, if at all (see the CBI’s call for more children in the UK to study triple science
and DIUS asking for ideas on how to encourage young people to study science). Perhaps the first enthusiasm for science will be spurred by a school science fair, as Jenny Rohn blogged recently, or by a University open day, as Matt Brown blogged . But these events leave no public trace, important though they may be to the participants’ development.
The Nuffield Science Bursary scheme also aims to give school students a taste of science – by working on a real research project for 6 weeks. Michael Sargent recently wrote in The Biochemist about the scheme as it works at NIMR. Students will get a real feeling of being engaged in science, especially if they are encouraged to prepare a poster or report of their mini-project. Sadly there is no public archive of such reports (as far as I can find) so again no record is left for posterity unless the work finds its way later on into a formal publication.
Undergraduate research also traditionally languishes, unloved, in bottom drawers but there are journals that specialise in publishing this material. Earlier this year Bioscience Horizons launched, with support from a number of UK Universities. In the USA they’ve been doing it for longer – the UCLA undergraduate Science Journal and the Journal of Young Investigators both go back many years. They provide a real chance to read about the first scientific exploits of future scientific aces.
Normally though the scientific coming of age is the PhD thesis. Representing three years of work, it is the first mature product of the aspiring professional scientist. It is formalised like a scientific paper though rather longer. But since it is not disseminated widely, at any rate in printed form, it is not widely read. A thesis usually contains an excellent literature review and so should be worth reading for that alone, but often they are ignored. I suppose the presumption is that anything worth reading will find its way into a journal article in due course. And of course they are not always easily discovered or obtained. This has been changing with the advent of electronic theses. The USA-based Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations is an international organization devoted to promoting e-theses and their website allows you to search through several e-thesis collections. In the UK the British Library’s EThOS service will launch next month, making all those youthful researches easier to find for future juvenilia hunters.
Finally, if a literary enthusiast is a member of the literati, what do you call a scientific enthusiast?

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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9 Responses to Documenting the early years

  1. Matt Brown says:

    Finally, if a literary enthusiast is a member of the literati, what do you call a scientific enthusiast?
    Hypotherati gets my vote.
    Another stimulating post, Frank.

  2. Henry Gee says:

    I once saw a cartoon entitled ‘The Adolescent Almighty’. The scene was two dinosaurs fighting to the death, with a speech balloon coming out of the clouds that said “Cool!!!

  3. Graham Steel says:

    “Bum, Poo, Willy,” et al
    Might this be the work of McHim

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Re. McHim – I hoped I might be able to find you a thesis on The influence of D.H. Lawrence on Billy Connolly but sadly not. Plenty of theses on Lawrence but a real gap in the market on Connolly.
    As for hypotherati – I see where you’re coming from but I don’t think it’ll catch on. Looks like a surrealist film title Hypo The Rat, I.
    Maybe it is a vain quest. After all literature just means written stuff, and much of science is about writing.

  5. Angela Saini says:

    Laberati..?

  6. Matt Brown says:

    Chemists could be the Pipetterati

  7. Maxine Clarke says:

    Laborati is nice but it would not work because many scientists don’t work in labs.
    Hypotherati scares me (with my Nature editor hat on). It is too similar to crankerati.
    Scientorati does not sound very nice (unlike the lovely, musical pipetterati).
    Naturati? 😉

  8. Frank Norman says:

    I think we need a philologist to advise. Perhaps the form -erati is not obligatory? We could go for the scientia (but it’s hard to pronounce).

  9. Alejandro Correa says:

    Frank – maybe Neoscientist adorable