Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Professor Oliver Smithies on the Scientific Record

Nobel laureate and UNC Professor Oliver Smithies delivered a fascinating array of observations on his life in science at the Health Sciences Library on March 30, 2009. The event was moderated by Dr. Tony Waldrop, UNC Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, and featured a conversation with Smithies and a lengthy question-and-answer with the audience, which was composed of numerous students, researchers, staff, and faculty, as well as members of the public.

Smithies emphasized the vital importance of seeking out original literature to be able to trace the intellectual development of scientific ideas. He noted further that while access to current and historical literature is ever-increasing, information technologies are not without attendant risks and limitations. The rapid obsolescence of various media, particularly digital formats, presents a long-term preservation and access problem.

In his own work spanning decades, Smithies has assiduously compiled series upon series of laboratory notebooks in which he has recorded the trials, tribulations, and remarkable discoveries of his countless experiments. In fact, Smithies' Nobel Lecture, entitled "Turning Pages," featured his notebooks prominently (this lecture and other Nobel-related materials--audio, video, and texts--are accessible at the Health Sciences Library web site). Smithies pointed out that information, data, and ideas recorded in written form have an immediacy and ongoing functionality not exhibited by other examples of storage media that he brought along from his personal archives.

Those interested in learning more about Smithies' talk can read The Daily Tar Heel article, "Smithies Emphasizes Importance of Records." And for those curious about how the wisdom of Professor Smithies might be rendered in 140-character tweets on Twitter, check out UNC Professor Paul Jones' numerous postings made during the event. Smithies himself, needless-to-say, does not twitter, but UNC HealthCare, for example, does.

The UNC Health Sciences Library videoed the entire event, and will make this available online at a later date.

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