The power of undiscovered public knowledge

In early December, I came across an obituary of Don Swanson, someone I’d not heard of before his passing. In it, Swanson was remembered for his work, in which “unearthing unseen links between two distinct areas of study could yield new discoveries—what he called “undiscovered public knowledge.””

A colleague at the University of Chicago explained his unique contribution to medicine and science:

“Don was doing science, without dissecting a salamander,” said Mark Olsen, assistant director of the American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL) project, a major digital humanities project that was influenced by Swanson’s work. “He was doing experiments with information.”

In reading about Swanson, it struck me that his curiosity rubbed off on others. A bit later, this small glimpse: 

Swanson happily lent his expertise to colleagues around the University. In the early days of the ARTFL project, Prof. Robert Morrissey came to Swanson for advice on how to handle organization of the massive new database. “He told me, ‘What this project needs is a little sunshine and water,” remembered Morrissey, the Benjamin Franklin Professor of French Literature and director of ARTFL. “He was very generous with his time.”

Things feel a bit tough in publishing these days, and there aren’t that many people thinking they’ll get easier any time soon. It’s not surprising that we’re often found casting about for answers to known questions, rather than asking if we might be well-served seeking an unexpected correlation or two.

Certainly, Swanson’s work illustrates the potential value of seeking the unexpected. But that’s not what really stuck with me. It was the idea of being generous with his time. That speaks volumes.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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