HotAIR - The Holy Grail Redux

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The Holy Grail Redux

by Steve Nadis
Cambridge, Massachusetts

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a specially abridged web version of the original article. For the original, which also includes many other examples and copious footnotes, see the November/December 2001 issue (vol. 7, no. 6) of the print magazine.

In an earlier paper ("In Search of the Holy Grail," AIR 2:2), I presented the first rigorous analysis of the meaning of the "holy grail" -- a term that is ubiquitous in science journalism and academic prose, ascribed, at one time or another, to just about every "big" scientific question in virtually every major discipline. Though inconclusive, that landmark study reached the definitive conclusion that the phrase holy grail is more or less impossible to define, having been used in so many different settings as to have been rendered almost meaningless. This latest effort carries my previous work to the next level, proceeding -- in the usual scientific fashion--one step forward and two back.

One of the best ways of determining what scholars mean by the holy grail, or
variations thereof, is through "context." The basic strategy employed here
was to apply my keen powers of perception to the body of evidence accumulated
to date in the hopes that some kernels of meaning might emerge, if not leap
off the page outright.

My investigation began where all good investigation begins -- at our nation's
"jewel in the crown," the public library system. Like many a seasoned
investigator, I called the reference desk at the New York Public Library to
see if its knowledgeable staff could solve the riddle of the grail once and
for all. Unfortunately, they offered nothing more than a textbook definition.

Next, I returned to the site of my previous triumph, my local branch library,
where some years ago I first cracked the case of the grail. To my dismay, the
card catalog upon which I had leaned so heavily over the decades was no
longer in service. In fact, it no longer existed, having been removed and
recycled for kindling years ago.

"One must keep up with the times," an apologetic librarian told me. I
followed her advice, throwing myself at Web searches as if my life depended
on it. And in a way it did, at least my academic life.

But back to the elusive quarry that has haunted me like the great whale that
consumed Ahab. It has struck me, since the start of my inquiry, that almost
everything is electronic these days -- can openers, "charcoal" grills, and even
light bulbs -- and this is especially true of library searches. Yet the web
forays were unproductive, turning up 347,625 "hits," none of which were
really on the mark. For example, the statement that "balance is our Holy
Grail, even if it's measured in thousands and not millions" is the type of
vague, meaningless pap that wastes precious research time and can set back an
entire field. Unfortunately, it took me almost a year of fruitless analysis
before I dismissed that enigmatic passage and others of equally unpromising
ilk.

An old-fashioned, self-administered "clipping service" that I have long
subscribed to proved much more rewarding, and I shall recount the results of
that effort herein. It is my hope that with these renderings, we can slowly
circle around the grail -- defining its contours and range, ultimately homing
in on its evanescent essence.

Which brings us to the paradoxical nature of the grail -- a feature deftly
captured by Yale psychologist Robert J. Sternberg: "The results of Duncan et
al. provide a holey grail rather than the Holy Grail, because as yet they
have not provided the whole grail." My sentiments exactly, although I try to
avoid obvious puns whenever possible--a product, no doubt, of my strict
seminarian training.

But what do the innumerable journal entries tell us about the grail itself?

The Holy Grail of songbird biology--a frequent topic of conversation at
sports bars and brothels--is the long-sought linkage of breeding success with
winter habitat. The Holy Grail of statistical mechanics, meanwhile, has for
decades been a mathematical problem called the Ising model, named
reverentially after the German physicist Ernst Ising. But that could soon
change, Science Magazine warns. A grand unified theory is often called the
Holy Grail of physics, along with many other grails in the field, including
experimental evidence of proton decay ("the Holy Grail of particle physics")
and superstring theory ("the Holy Grail of modern physics"). Physics has
traditionally been labeled a "difficult" field, and this is especially true
of grail nomenclature.

Sources of cells that can be transplanted into the human body constitute but
one of the holy grails of biomedical research, proclaims USA Today, the
cultivation of human embryonic cells being another. Ignition has been called
the Holy Grail of nuclear fusion, whereas the Holy Grail of Antarctic
exploration is -- in a shocking revelation -- none other than the South Pole, if
not Antarctica itself.

How can the average reader, let alone Freud, make sense of this parade of
seemingly random associations? How on Earth is he or she to find congruity
amidst the incongruity, coherence amidst the disparate parts? He/she is not.

In fact, veteran researchers have long since recognized the futility of
casting about idly for a single, dominant grail or an overarching "Grail of
Grails." During times of crisis, we'd do well to consider the words of Herman
J. C. Berendsen, quoting from J. Matthew's classic text: "The Grail had many
different manifestations throughout its long history, and many have claimed
to possess it or its like. We might have seen a glimpse of it," Berendsen
cautions, "but the brave knights must prepare for a long pursuit."

To the uninitiated, it may seem like a hopeless task. Which is true, in part.
But those who've had a taste of the Grail--and are endowed with the courage
to follow its serpentine path--cannot easily abandon the hunt, nor let the
treasure slip from their emboldened grasp.

Acknowledgements

There are so many people to thank, too many in fact, that I
shall single out just one: Myself. For at the end of the day, despite the
occasional pat on the back I might have received or the even rarer "beer on
the house" or "free lunch," I was the one who dragged myself out of bed,
slogged through puddles, snowdrifts, and all manner of obstacle to get the
job done.


© Copyright 2001 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)

This HotAIR feature first appeared in VOLUME 7-ISSUE 6 of the print magazine. For a complete list of web site featured articles, see What's New.