I'm really intrigued by the sale of one of Francis Crick's letters this week. In it, the famous geneticist describes to his son the discovery of DNA. The discovery, for which he would later share the Nobel Prize with James Watson, is certainly one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century, so I'm not even that surprised by the incredible $5.3 million paid at auction for the letter. What really has me curious is how this trend will extend into the future.
The papers and letters of famous scientists, from Newton to Darwin to Einstein, have long sold for enormous sums at auction, so there's little doubt in the monetary value of historic documents. The modern age, however, has changed this equation. Never before have we generated so much personal information yet written down so little. The 2012 Nobel winner in physics, David Wineland, has probably generated an order of magnitude more personal correspondence than scientists just fifty years before him. Emails, texts, instant messages, Powerpoints, and online videos have documented the evolution of his work in intricate detail. These days, virtually every personal thought is recorded somewhere. But does this sea of correspondence have the same value? Does a triumphant email to a collaborator carry the same weight in history as a letter carefully composed and deliberately sent?
Scientific discoveries often exist at the boundary between careful study and personal crusade. Peering into the mind of the scientist himself (or herself) can often lend valuable insight into the origins of his work. But, with all this additional and extraneous material, will it be possible to filter down to the essential nature of the scientist's thoughts? I've probably tossed out dozens of crazy ideas on this blog and in emails over the last few years. If I go on to make the next big discovery (fingers crossed!), how will future historians decide what I was really thinking?
Even if a pivotal email does exist, will it ever have the same value as the letters of centuries past? In some ways, this is the same debate confronted by the art world at the dawn of photography. And, it turns out, photographs have never been as valuable as their one-of-a-kind counterparts. Even photographic prints, though, have value if they were created by the artist herself. Maybe what I need to do is start printing out my emails and signing them. One day perhaps they will be worth something. But probably not.