On Discovery

Remarks given at Cum Laude Induction
Episcopal High School
Alexandria, Virginia
April 15, 2016

Congratulations to the cum laude inductees and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. It is a great honor to be here at Episcopal High School.

I want to talk today about discovery, how discovery happens, how it works, and at least how I have experienced the joy, the excitement, of discovery–that moment when you see something you did not see before. I’m sure you know what I mean. Time seems to slow down. A new reality of the world, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, snaps into focus.

This moment of discovery can be as abrupt as a windswept prairie fire or as ponderous as a category four hurricane, but the world is not the same in its aftermath. We see things differently. We know what we did not know.

In my field of endeavor–research, higher education–we live for this moment, this experience.

It is tempting to think that this flash of insight–what’s called the eureka effect–is nothing more than a trope made for TV. We see it in the new Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock is forever hearing Watson (played by Martin Freeman) say something utterly mundane and apparently unrelated to the case at hand such as “Shall we take a taxi?” A taxi! Why of course. Sherlock’s mind clicks through a sequence of associations . . . the killer is a taxi driver! What was once obscure becomes obvious.

Parents, perhaps you are familiar with a different, more tongue-in-cheek parody of the eureka effect from our early years: the 1960s TV show Batman. This was a favorite of mine for its witty, goofy sendup of various plots. It was full of moments when Batman (played by Adam West) — without body armor, no just a flimsy plastic cape that had all of the tensile strength of Saran Wrap, and always correcting Robin’s grammar of all things — would say something like: “That’s it Robin! The man in the grey suit was whistling the Star Spangled Banner BACKWARDS! The joker’s lair must be in the old fireworks factory! To the Batmobile!”

I know it’s unbelievable we were impressed by this.

What I have learned about these moments–about discovery broadly–both in my own work and watching my colleagues from physics to chemistry to psychology is that it they are not just a trope. Such moments occur. But to have them we need to invite the possibility of new worlds, new realities unfolding before us and around us. When we do, we give ourselves the opportunity to have that mind-bending flash of insight that Holmes has, well, every episode 48 minutes in.

Several years ago I was between writing projects and thinking about what I would do next. I had written a brief book review of a biography of John Marshall (Kent Newmeyer’s John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court) and I had noticed a little known case called Queen v. Hepburn. It was an enslaved person (Queen) petitioning for her freedom from a slaveholder (Hepburn). Francis Scott Key was her attorney. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1813. Key made what I thought was a surprising argument on her behalf based on universal human rights, natural law, and freedom. It’s an important case for a number of reasons. So, I went to the National Archives to check it out and pull the original case file. I’m not really sure why I decided to do that other than I wanted to know more about the questions this case raised.

There is a palpable excitement as you wait in the great room of the National Archives for the archivist to retrieve an old original document. That day was no exception. I did not know what to expect. The case file could have been nothing more than a few perfunctory court papers, a summons, a notation of the clerk of the court, little more than a jacket with the file number written on the back. Or it could contain detailed information about the witnesses and the arguments of the attorneys.

That day at National Archives the helpful expert archivist on staff, Robert Ellis, not only pulled the file but also directed me to an index that some of his staff had completed a few years earlier. The index listed all cases in the District Circuit Court between 1800 and 1862 that had black plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, or participants. A world opened up before me as I looked at entry after entry, page after page of notations.

This moment feels like slipping through a wormhole into a parallel point in time, past and present experienced simultaneously. Evidence I have seen elsewhere and other theories combine and snap into a new alignment. The past is suddenly, abruptly rearranged.

Note that this discovery was almost accidental. I could easily have spent years researching without knowing about the “Black Washingtonians” index. Fortunately Robert Ellis knew what the case files contained and I had asked enough questions that he realized I might want to see this index that virtually no one had used before.

We started collecting these case files and putting them online with colleagues at the University of Maryland, College Park. In short order we found evidence of Francis Scott Key’s role in a series of cases in 1815 that had been featured in a well-known abolitionist pamphlet by Jesse Torrey called A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery. These too were petitions for freedom but some of these petitioners were free blacks who had been kidnapped. Others were enslaved. All were being taken to be sold south–the beginning of what would become the interstate slave trade. At the time this incident provoked outrage in D.C. A Congressional investigation into the slave trade and kidnapping followed. One of these captives, a woman from Bladensburg, threw herself out of a third floor window on F Street where she and others were effectively imprisoned. Her back and arms were broken in the fall. Her name went unmentioned in several early accounts.

Torrey did not identify her at all. Eventually some newspaper and abolitionist accounts identified her as “Anna” or “old Anna.” No one knew what happened to her.

Then in November 2015, two hundred years almost to the day after her jump, we discovered her petition for freedom. Her case was tried 17 years later. She not only survived the fall but also won the jury trial for her freedom in 1832. And Francis Scott Key, 17 years later, was still her attorney. Her name was Ann Williams.

This discovery was astonishing. It changes the way we understand the entire event and every thing about it, every detail. Rather than a hopeless suicide attempt in the face of slavery, her leap from the window could be a leap toward freedom, toward her husband, toward family, toward belonging, toward a future with her children. (We are working on a new short film about Ann Williams and her case.) In the hands of her abolitionist interlocutors, Ann Williams was rendered a figure of pity and sympathy. But her actions demonstrate other qualities: resilience, decisiveness, strength, and purpose.

Here too, the discovery of a single document led to an abrupt rearrangement of the past. The past snapped into a new reality.

Discoveries like these are happening every day in history, literature, science, and in all disciplines. Knowledge is not stationary–it’s restless, on the move, searching, and being rearranged as we speak.

At colleges and universities we look into the complex problems of our world–phenomena that need to be understood, documented, and explained. Humanistic, artistic, social, and behavioral. I am inspired by my colleagues in physics at CERN collaborating to discover the Higgs boson, measuring the production, decay, and interaction of this novel boson. The new results substantiate what’s called the Standard Model, but they also become the point of departure enabling the search for new yet unexplained and unexplored phenomena in our physical world.

So, finally the flash of insight, the moment of discovery, is not just a trope for television. It happens. It happens when we collaborate. Sherlock needs Watson. After all, what is Sherlock without Watson? It happens when we are open to the possibilities around us, when we are alert to the clues we do not at first recognize.

You are entering a world where discoveries await you. We need every one of you. We need you to be open to the possibilities of new worlds not yet imagined or invented. I hope that on your journey here, and in college, and beyond, that you will not only seek to know what is but also imagine and create what can be.

Thank you and congratulations cum laude members and inductees.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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