Thursday, September 26, 2013

The "Glamour" of Research

Is working with a shovel as intellectually cool as working with a laser?

Photo: UNC Charlotte
If you look at almost any university website, you will see a lot of pictures that look pretty much identical to the one on the left: lab-coated researcher looking in a microscope (or a researcher pipetting something -- the truly generic research photo), showing people hard at work doing some kind of technical lab thing. It makes perfect sense, because that is what we all identify as university research -- "some technical lab thing."

A friend actually asked me a while back "what is research?" I had to say, it's actually a whole lot more than just "some technical lab thing" that everybody can see is important but nobody understands. Yes, it's work in a biology lab, a physics lab, a chemistry lab, an engineering lab, but it's also the theoretical physicist puzzling at a blackboard with equations, the mathematician writing a hundred-page-long proof, the bioinformatician developing algorithms to help make sense out of massive datasets (these examples are probably obviously still "research" to everyone) but yet then again it's also the historian reading reams of source documents in library archives to get further understanding of the past's context, a sociologist or anthropologist observing a group of people in a jungle somewhere (or perhaps right down the street), or someone running thought experiments concerning what people seem to be talking about on Twitter today and hypothesizing why.

xkcd Comics

To those of us who work at universities, all these things are obviously research. But to the rest of us, including my friend, the last items in the list above may be more puzzling. If these non-lab studies are indeed research, my friend would still wonder: why are people being paid to do them? Will work in a library lead to a cure for cancer or a better cell phone? Will observing groups of people help us avoid global warming or help us develop a more fuel-efficient car? I don't even use Twitter -- why should I care how it works?

I would argue (and did so with my friend) in the strongest possible terms that these activities are all fundamentally the same thing -- the search for new knowledge -- and that one should be really careful in assuming that one is more valuable than the other. I'm not sure my friend was convinced, and I guess I don't expect you to be either.

That is why this blog is focusing a bit this year on research that is being done outside of engineering and the physical/life sciences -- especially on work that is being done social sciences and the humanities. We hope that you may begin to see that these are all "sciences" (fields of knowing) and begin to get a feel for their value, though it may be a little less tangible than your cell phone.

The example that I would like to focus on in this post is an archaeological research project I recently wrote a press release about in my job as UNC Charlotte's public information officer for research. I've actually written about archaeology quite a lot in my career, and I enjoy writing about it, not because it's easier to explain than theoretical physics (sometimes it's not), but because the public is invariably quite interested in the topic. Though it won't help them stay healthy or save money on gas, people are hungry to understand the past -- particularly parts of it that are missing or mysterious -- and archaeology research leads to that.

The archaeological project I wrote about seems, on its surface, to not be particularly promising or valuable. The "dig" was at a barren section of Jerusalem's Mount Zion lying outside the current walls of the old city, under a stretch of desert and rubble where there were suspected to be ruins. The ruins in this area, however, were not expected to be ancient palaces or temples but houses or old city buildings, and there was no expectation of finding any treasure, lost religious artifacts or even works of ancient art. There doesn't seem to be any immediate items of "value" (in the common sense of the word) likely to be found at Mt. Zion. So why were they digging?

Well, first of all, because it's Jerusalem, which is a place US archaeologists don't often get to study -- the Mt. Zion site is actually the only place in the city the Israelis have authorized an American team to dig. Jerusalem has been inhabited for thousands of years, by the Jews, the Romans, the Byzantines, and by a string of different Muslim cultures (with Christian crusaders in the middle), so any site is likely to be rich in the city's complex history. The relative abandonment of the Mt. Zion site, particularly in more recent times, is actually an important factor here, because it means that some layers -- especially the early ones, had a chance to be buried by time before they could be completely dismantled in the process of later construction and use.

It is a place where forgotten parts of history can literally be dug up and re-discovered. For this reason, the university is also using the dig as a field school, allowing students to engage in the actually process of archaeological research, under the direction of a professional archaeologist. It's not quite as glamourous as it sounds, as you can see in this wonderful video that a group of our star students made while on site:

All student humor aside, this kind of research is obviously hot, dirty, demanding work -- a far cry from people in white lab coats wielding delicate, high-tech instruments. But the students (who I talked to later) saw a huge amount of value in the hard labor. Under expert guidance, they got to see first hand how history gets exposed, and discover some things that no one else had known before. They got to go back and understand history from the source.

Excavation at Mt. Zion, end of 2013 season.
What did they "discover"? It might sound silly at first, but the most important thing they found this year was a bathroom -- a room with a bathtub in the well-preserved lower levels of a first-century Jewish-Roman house of the period. This find matters because a room with a bathtub was a real luxury feature in Jerusalem of the time, particularly when connected to a ritual cleansing pool (which this one was) and it's a strong indication that the past resident was one of the city's elite residents, perhaps one of the leading priests. Since the building has been relatively well preserved, the archaeologists are excited that further digging (they have two more seasons to complete the project) and analysis of artifacts may yield a lot of significant details about the domestic lives of Jerusalem's leaders at the time.

Bathroom discovered in first century mansion 
But you still might ask: why it is important to know the day-to-day life details of some officials who lived 2,000 years ago? Well, consider that this house dates from the time of Jesus, and that the priests (and other elites) of the time were people that Jesus preaches against constantly and who were also the very people who had him crucified. Outside of the minimal details given in the bible, we don't actually know much at all about these people, so we don't really understand what the real life dynamic was between them and Jesus. He objected to how they lived as wealthy people, but we don't really know what that lifestyle was. An excavation being conducted by UNC archaeologists and scholars -- and some dusty, hard-digging students -- may provide some greater understanding in an historically important situation that people have wondered about for thousands of years.

Is it research when your tool is a pick and shovel rather than a pipette, and your subject is first century Jewish lifestyles rather than genes or molecules? I'd say -- obviously, yes. Is it valuable work? You decide.

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