Google is not always the best answer

Google has become the default casual research tool for most people if a sometimes dangerous one for students now that AI plagiarism software is widely used in universities. Yet publishers are still issuing print editions of various reference texts and some of them are still of greater value and utility than online searches.

There are many examples: a Shorter Oxford Dictionary in the two volume form is still very useful; a Thesaurus is essential for anyone who writes regularly; a good dictionary of quotations – for instance the Oxford one or the H.L. Mencken Collins edition are quick ways to get a reputation for erudition; Tony Jacques’ Dictionary of Battles and Sieges settles many military arguments; and, the Oxford Classical Dictionary is excellent for tracking down obscure references to Greek and Roman classical civilisations.

An Australian entry in the reference text area which is absolutely invaluable is the Seventh Edition of Barry Jones’ Dictionary of World Biography published by ANU Press with the print edition currently available for pre-order and a free e-version also available. It is difficult not to be amazed by Comrade Jones and the comprehensive overhaul of the Dictionary by an 87 year old is yet another remarkable achievement by a remarkable man.

In the new edition there are a significant number of new entries and substantial revisions to other entries. For instance Thomas Harriot – Elizabethan astronomer, mathematician and pioneer in maritime navigation – is a new entry. Harriot is as important as Kepler and Copernicus but his papers had been lost for almost 200 years and, as much of his research was undertaken while employed by Sir Walter Raleigh and kept secret for commercial reasons, he is being rescued from obscurity by this DWB entry and the recent biography by Robyn Arianrhod.

Robert with Charles FitzRoy are new additions continuing the growing awareness of Robert’s pioneering work in weather forecasting as well as his role in the Darwin voyages. The recently deceased Andrea Camilleri is in and his publications in English will continue on for some years as a number have not yet been translated from Italian.

Reflecting the Jones’ awareness of the sciences the mathematician G.H. Hardy of the Hardy-Ramanujan number joins Srinivisa Ramanujan, who was included in the third DWB edition, in this latest edition. Carl Bosch, Neville Cardus, Frank Harris, al-Khwarizmi, Richard Doll and Henry Folger are newly included giving us insights into industry, cricket and music, disreputable memoirs and poetry, the invention of algebra, epidemiology and bibliography.

Contemporaries fare well with new entries for Pete Buttigieg although it might be some decades before we can gauge his overall political significance beyond being the first openly gay Presidential candidate. Others include Michael Palin, Greta Thunberg, Anthony Albanese (Scott Morrison was already there in as good a brief recounting of his political manoeuvring as you could wish for), Karl Ove Knausgard, Robert Lowe (the Australian and British MP not the actor), Baroness Hale of UK Supreme Court Brexit fame, and Anders Breivik to match fame with infamy.

There are also some substantial revisions. Among those who have had revisions are Eric Hobsbawm, Genghis Kahn, Richard Nixon, Henry Ireton, Chaucer (reflecting the new emphasis on the European dimensions of his life and his contributions to our language), Hedy Lamarr, Ada Lovelace, George Stephenson, Walt Whitman, Dom Mintoff, Hugo Grotius, Catherine the Great, Hannibal (a brief entry which is balanced about the cause of his death and doesn’t speculate about where he was buried – rather better than the recent Patrick Hunt biography which resorts to all sorts of speculation on the general’s early days),Maurice Wilkins, George Orwell and Rosalind Franklin.

The Franklin entry is a great example of Jones’ ability to sum up biographical details, wider social issues and relevant personal facts although it is a pity he couldn’t include the 2012 biography written by Franklin’s sister Jenifer Glyn in his references. But then everyone probably has a view on what should or should not be in what is already a 988 page book with a huge list of entries and it is a very minor quibble. The entry says:

“Franklin, Rosalind Elsie (1920–1958). English biophysicist. Educated at Cambridge, after early research on gas-phase chromatography, she pursued physical chemical work on the structure of coals and carbonised coals. She worked in Paris 1947–50, using the techniques of X-ray diffusion to illuminate the study of carbons, and from 1951 at King’s College, London on the problems of virus structure.

“Her priority had been developing models of carbon structure and investigating changes under high temperatures. She now concentrated on X-ray diffraction pictures of DNA and her experiments demonstrated that the patterns of DNA crystallinity were compatible with a helical structure.

“She hoped to build up a picture of the structure using empirical means, while at the same time investigating various theoretical models (e.g. anti-parallel rods in pairsback-to-back). Her own attempts to find a satisfactory helical structure were pre-empted by Crick and Watson’s ‘double helix’ solution, which appeared in Nature for 25 April, 1953.

“They had access (and this is a matter of ongoing controversy) to vital X-ray photographs taken by her which they interpreted correctly and she did not. She devoted the next few years to further research on coal, and to improving her earlier X-ray pictures.

“She died of ovarian cancer before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Crick, Watson and her collaborator Maurice Wilkins in 1962. She worked very closely on viruses with Aaron Klug, also a Nobel Laureate, who admired her greatly. There is an extensive literature on Franklin, now regarded as a classic victim of misogyny. Asteroid 9241 Rosfranklin, two universities, many buildings, laboratories and awards have been named for her.”

The Australian, Telford Conlon (son of the famous Alf), who was a student in the laboratory at the same time as ‘Rosie’ as she was often called, has remarked on how she sometimes amazed many of the young male scientists as she combined research with fashionable clothes and events.

Among the entries Jones particularly likes are the one on the irascible Lord Kitchener who, during the Boer War, ensured Britain was an early pioneer (along with the Spanish in Cuba) of concentration camps, although he was long gone by the time the Brits were the undoubted pioneers of aerial bombing of civilians in Iraq in the 1920s.

There are many treasures in this new edition and a fascinating introduction explains much about the DWB’s origins. It says: “The work, inevitably, is highly personal, even semi-autobiographical, projecting my involvement in politics, teaching history, extensive travel, and absorption in music, literature, the arts, religion, philosophy, ethics, and decades of work with a disaster relief organisation and campaigns to reduce blindness.

“In the mid-1950s I had been puzzled that no comprehensive biographical dictionary was available in paperback at a modest price. I determined to fill the gap.

“While I was teaching history and literature at Dandenong High School, I typed away furiously on my old Olivetti. I retain three bound volumes of my first draft bearing the final date of 5 May 1959, when I was only 26.” So this may make the latest edition actually the eighth.