The Zen of Genealogy & The Art of Rocket Science

I know some rocket scientists. Rocket scientists are friends of mine.

And I know something about rocket science itself. I was born several years before the Sputnik launch, and was in school after that event as America wrung its collective hands about “why Johnny can’t read” and whether American kids were up to competition with Communist Russian kids.

Then, as a child of the space age, I desired nothing so much as to be an astronaut. Living on a semi-secret atomic weapons base, I was surrounded by scientists, technologists, and engineers. And the aforementioned semi-secret atomic weapons base was adjacent to a large Air Force base, which housed several aeronautical laboratories as well as all sorts of aircraft and pilots to fly them. Between the main gates of the semi-secret atomic weapons base and the large Air Force base on Gibson Boulevard in Southeast Albuquerque, there was the Lovelace Clinic, where astronauts, starting with the first Mercury seven, came for their physical examinations. In our neighborhood, our neighbor across the street was a flight surgeon and his physicist wife, both then in their 30s.

I went to college at a small elite school nestled against the Rocky Mountains, in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. At that school, rocket science was a required course for everyone, even the humanities majors. I had been admitted with freshman honors to a large research university in the upper Midwest, but I chose the small, mountain school because the chances of achieving my occupational goal were, if you’ll excuse the expression, astronomically higher at the Front Range college. And I intended to discover the origins of the universe by visiting every part of it that I could in my lifetime.

Alas, my dream of being a rocket scientist was dashed early on, when at the midterm of my freshman fall semester, I had garnered no better than a “C” in one of my two-required-even-for-English-majors-math courses. (I had a “B” at that point in the other course). One day, my freshman advisor, a math professor, looked at my grades and said “You’ll make the Dean’s List, but man, you ain’t gonna be no rocket scientist at this school!” (With all due respect to rocket scientists, I should point out first, that he was an engineer by profession—probably from Georgia Tech—and, second, that’s not exactly what he said, but the words had the same effect on me.) By the end of the day, I was being welcomed to the political science department. (As a poli sci major, I still had to finish the math program, which was two more courses beyond the freshman two, and I had to take, as did all students, advanced physics, chemistry, aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, and astronautical engineering).

After I graduated, I became a I became a missile launch officer and learned a little more about navigation in outer space. Years later, I returned to the faculty of the school as a law professor to teach law to real undergrad rocket science majors. (Law, philosophy, psychology, economics, were required of all, even-for-the-rocket-science majors). At the same time, I was on the adjunct faculty of a well-known Midwestern university where I taught a graduate seminar in “space law and policy” to real rocket scientists, at least one of whom became a famous astronaut. And during this same time period, I served a tour in the office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in the program nicknamed “Star Wars” (by the press) as special counsel for space law, international law, arms control and treaty compliance. Here I interacted with some of the nation’s greatest rocket scientists.

So, I know a little bit about rocket science.

I also know a little bit about genealogy.

I know enough about each of them to say that genealogy is not rocket science. But that is merely to state a fact, not to denigrate genealogy nor to exalt rocket science. There are similarities, however.

When I was teaching law to undergraduates, mostly majoring in science and engineering, they would complain bitterly at the beginning of the semester about having to take what they called “fuzzy studies.”1 They claimed that courses like law, philosophy and psychology, lacked the pedagogical discipline and predictable structures of science and engineering. “Where are the equations?” they would lament. “The answers are too ambiguous,” they would object. “The processes are result- oriented,” they would loudly declare. (My favorite joke didn’t help: “Math Professor: What’s 2+2? Law Professor: Whatever my client needs it to be!”)

By the end of the semester, however, I had demonstrated to and convinced them that in the law, there are “equations” which when populated with the same variables produce the same results every time, with scientific regularity. (The trick is, however, the lack of exactness of any two variables in the legal universe. But then again that’s true in the physical universe as well). I had also convinced most of them by the end of the semester, that ambiguity is endemic to science; that without ambiguity there would be no science. They also came to accept that the “answers” in the fuzzy studies frequently were to be had by the same deductive and inductive processes used in science. That imagination and creativity are as important in the sciences as they are in the fuzzy studies. (It’s no mere accident that so-called “fuzzy logic” has played a key role in the 20th century/early 21st century scientific advances).

I don’t think I know any genealogists who are rocket scientists or any rocket scientists who are genealogists. But genealogy is like law and rocket science. All possess accepted conventions, regular processes, universally recognized methodologies, and require disciplined problem-solving. Serendipity mightily figures into all of these practices.

Rocket scientists don’t worry about who is a “professional” rocket scientist or who is a “hobbyist” rocket scientist. Among rocket scientists the term “professional” has less to do with pecuniary remuneration than it does with credibility. This term “professional” is either an adjective or a noun applied to one who displays qualities of “professionalism.” And while among rocket scientists degrees of professionalism may be suggested by credentials, or the lack thereof, that’s all they are–a suggestion, a rebuttable presumption. This same may be said of genealogy.

A rocket scientist becomes well-known by his work, his ethics, and his ability to communicate the essence of his work to the scientific community. The same may be said of genealogists.

Efforts to label genealogists based on credentials, or clientele, or celebrity are almost entirely exclusionary and useless. A reputation in the genealogical community that is based upon recognition of quality of work is the most valuable credential a genealogist may have. Having said that, let me offer some adjectives that are useful in vetting genealogists:

In genealogy and rocket science there is the danger that one can be trapped by formulaic orthodoxy. That is the antithesis of the scientific method and a great way to stifle productive inquiry. It is a form of laziness.

Not everybody can be or wants to be Robert H. Goddard or Werner von Braun. One may be perfectly happy and well-respected without being Elizabeth Shown Mills or Donald Lines Jacobus. The director of the local genealogical society in Chester, Illinois, or Thomaston, Georgia, each may be as “professional” as any FASG.

In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, a 24 year-old Kansas farmer lacking any college education, discovered the dwarf planet Pluto. Volunteer and non-academics long have been the backbone of research astronomy. They form the considerable of core of workers seeking Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Similarly, volunteers and “no-name” workers comprise the largest part of the genealogical research community. They’re the ones who ferret out obscure local records, lecture for local societies, maintain family and local histories and index world and national records.

I have no bone to pick with the well-known genealogists. They’ve earned their notoriety. But I do think that far too much effort is spent on trying to create an occupational taxonomy for genealogy. Let’s forget about that and accept that the many individual paths to experience and wisdom lead to enlightment for all.

Show 1 footnote

  1. “History and Moral Philosophy works like a delayed-action bomb. You wake up in the middle of the night and think: Now what did he mean by that? That had been true, even with my high school course; I simply hadn’t known what Colonel Dubois was talking about. When I was a kid, I thought it was silly for the course to be in the science department. It was nothing like physics or chemistry; why wasn’t it over in the fuzzy studies where it belonged?”–Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers (New York: GP  Putnam & Sons, 1959; Ace paperback edition, 1987) p. 176

8 Responses to “The Zen of Genealogy & The Art of Rocket Science”

  • Nancy Hurley says:

    Thank you for sharing your understanding and experience. You give confidence and encouragement and motivate us to think a lot more about our capabilities. I, for one, am glad that you decided to bring your rocket-science, legally-trained, thoughtful and responsive nature to genealogy.

  • Greta Koehl says:

    Beautiful and true! Another thing about “professionals” that many people don’t get is that to be a professional in a particular field does not mean that you know everything about everything in that field – a professional can have depth or breadth, or some of both. Many people that I would regard as genealogy professionals may not have the credentials, but they are certainly experts in their particular area of genealogy.

  • Wow! That is just an awesome piece. Thought-provoking and well said. I don’t know any rocket scientists who are genealogists, but I do know of at least one lawyer who is and though he hasn’t been blogging much recently, it’s amazing what he comes up with when he does! Thank you, Craig.

  • Carol says:

    You , Sir, are a true gentleman.

  • Not only the “Voice of Reason” but the elegant and thoughtful voice of reason!

    I am always amazed at how you express opinions on topics that move other people to be sometimes less than charitable in their responses. You obviously have a specific view point, but it doesn’t involve name-calling :-) Reading what you write always makes me feel better somehow…thank-you!

  • Sheri Fenley says:

    You are consistently the “Voice of Reason” Mr. Manson and for that I thank you. I’ve gotten to the point recently that I am through worrying about what people think of me and my abilities as a genealogy and historical researcher. From this day forward, I will let my work speak for itself. Now, once some one has reviewed my work and they have constructive (key word here) criticism to offer, I will welcome their opinions and will listen with both ears. I am pursuing certification from BCG but it is for my own vanity, not out to prove anything to anyone.

  • GrannyPam says:

    The retired quality auditor in my loves this. So does my the day-dreaming fiction reader, and the extremely organized mother, grandmother and wife. The genealogist side of me is thrilled. The real truth is exhibited here, with careful background and explanation. Thank you.

  • Jasia says:

    Bravo, Craig! Wonderful article, great perspective. It made me think and reflect. And I find I whole heatedly agree. Thanks for a good thought-provoking read.

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