Sunday, May 22, 2011
Lessons from John Snow
I have a new role model. Today, I finished reading Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, one of those fun books that zeroes in on a seemingly minor event in history to unpeel its strangely significant ramifications impacting the way we live and even think today. That historical event was the cholera epidemic that struck London's Soho area in 1849, which at that time was a fecund Jane Jacobs-ville in Victorian England (in fact, London's most densely populated district).
I found great succor in the life example of the central protagonist, the polymath father of anesthesiology and nascent epidemiologist John Snow, who, in proving the water-borne transmission theory of cholera, indirectly made urbanism at the colossal scales of these past few centuries possible (well, ok...more possible). Dr. Snow's detective work married his lab-based experience interrogating the physiological responses to gases with sociological sleuth-work and mapping at the urban scale, a product of "consilient thinking" bridging heretofore unconnected fields of inquiry. While his genius was unappreciated in his day, it eventually solidified a plank for a science-based approach to public health works and policy. It's a rich book and one that offers much great fodder for urbanist self-examination today.
I especially recommend it for the cautionary lessons it has to offer about modes of "expert" thought that remain immured in group think. To be truly visionary and creative in your profession, you have to keep a hard-nosed grasp on observed fact while at the same time preserving an amateur's curiosity and nurturing what I dub a cross-polinating "syncretism" of divergent intellectual pursuits. John Snow's example vindicates my amateur pursuits. I will now pursue them with greater relish. I've been holding myself back. What strikes me about John Snow is that he did not hold back. Of course, he was inventing new fields of inquiry (anesthesiology, epidemiology to be exact, ...and perhaps add modern geography to that list), but, the fact is, he did not put brakes and limits to his "amateurism". I tend to think it is a kind of hubris to be self-aggrandizing about your hobby pursuits, especially where others have credentials. But John Snow didn't hesitate to whip out monographs on his side projects. A socially awkward loner like he was, this is a great lesson to me. Nor was he shy about engaging his critics, politely but thoroughly.
The "monographs" of today are blogs, we have to note. (I know...I wish we had more old-school print forums). So ... I will not apologize if Proper Scale becomes a little bit more "syncretistic". After all, what rich topics this weekend has given me with plagues and doomsday prophets feeding my obsessions. Surely I won't hold back! (Stay tuned.)