The Past Is A Blurry Place

I’m reading a couple of biographies of some famous scientists at the moment. Whilst doing this I’m also trying to figure out how the authors went about it, especially what (imo) works and what doesn’t.

There’s also the issue of the ultimate purpose of the book. If it’s a (conventional) biography, it should be reasonably complete, accurate and balanced. However, a few questions always crop up:

  • Should it also give a flavour of the personality as a whole, as a real-life human being, rather than just as a smart scientist?
  • How accessible should it be, namely, what is the target audience?
  • How long should it be (which in my opinion means how likely anyone will read it rather than just dip into it)?
  • How much research is needed, doing just the obvious or also going deeper? For example, looking at journals and diaries if they exist and, as a result, perhaps question standard views?

Whilst thinking about this, I stumbled across this fascinating quote:

“In a true history or biography, of how little consequence those events of which so much is commonly made! For example, how difficult for a man to remember in what towns or houses he has lived, or when! Yet one of the first steps of his biographer will be to establish these facts, and he will thus give an undue importance to many of them. I find in my Journal that the most important events in my life, if recorded at all, are not dated.” – David Thoreau

This insight certainly rings a bell with me, especially the last sentence.

Maybe the past is always a blurry place.


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