02 September 2006

Nothing like the original

It's a good month for cinema geek purists.

This month sees the DVD release of a couple of movies that I've been waiting to buy in their original versions. The Japanese release of Godzilla and the 1977 version of Star Wars. Both have been available before—the Americanized Godzilla with Raymond Burr, and the special edition version of the first three Star Wars movies, but I resisted buying earlier releases, because I wanted the original.

But it's not a great month for television geek purists. I was disappointed to read plans to redo the original Star Trek series. Hopefully, they will go the route taken by Star Wars and some of the DVDs of classic Doctor Who series and have an option where you can choose to view the original version or the new version.

I'm not opposed to tinkering with works of art in all cases. I went excitedly to the theatre when the Star Wars trilogy special edition was released, and the new effects and such were cool. But I don't want the originals to be lost.

Does this post have anything to do with science? Sort of. In Beautiful Evidence, Edward Tufte talks about summarizing as a potential source of corruption of evidence. The market for summaries in science is huge. You only need to think about textbooks. They repackage and summarize.

There are many notorious cases of errors being perpetuated because textbooks copy from each other. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about the "fox terrier clone" about how, in text after text, small prehistoric horses were compared in size to fox terriers, rather than any other dog (Gould, 1988). In one draft of a textbook I reviewed, I spotted another error that has been perpetuated by copying: a somatosensory map of the nervous system where the homonculus has a left hand attached to the right side of the body.

But even if the information is correct, quite often important context is lost. For example, some introductory biology books talk about the "Z scheme" when discussing photosynthesis to describe the energy levels of electrons. But many well known textbooks show it like below.

The "Z scheme" is shown by the yellow.

Do those yellow lines trace the letter Z?

They most emphatically do not.

At least in my world, that's an N, not a Z.

Never mind confusing the students, I have no idea why the heck the thing is called a Z scheme when faced with a diagram like that.

I strongly suspect that the diagram in the original scientific article describing electron energy in photosynthesis was rotated 90°, but I haven't been able to track it down to confirm. So I'm left with mysterious name I have to teach that is divorced from its original context, and makes no sense as a result.

I am really pleased to see is that more and more old research articles are becoming scanned and posted to the web, thanks to sites like JSTOR. More and more, I am able to read what the original authors thought and see the original evidence.

Gould, S.J. 1988. The case of the creeping fox terrier clone. Natural History 96(1): 16-24. (Also collected in: Gould, S.J. 1991. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, pp. 155-167. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.)

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