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Humanist Archives: May 2, 2021, 8:07 a.m. Humanist 34.357 - where from here

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 357.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2021-04-30 07:22:05+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.348: where from here?

Dear Willard,

As well as asking "where from here?"  for digital humanities,
it may be worth asking where not from here?

The arrival of your question coincided with my (re)reading of

  Jacob Cohen, 1990.  Things I Have Learned (So Far), American
  Psychologist, vol 45, no 12, pp 1304-1312.

A piece I push onto PhD students I teach.  They come from many
different disciplines, arts and humanities included.

And it coincided with a conversation I'm having with an old
friend, which has prompted me to consult (again)

  Jacques Heyman, 1996.  Elements of the Theory of Structures,
  Cambridge University Press.

Both made me think many disciplines of inquiry today have been
about where digital humanities is today, perhaps, and that
these other disciplines have since past the twenty years on
you ask us to think about.  Where, we might ask, did these
other digitalised disciplines of inquiry move on to?

Cohen writes, in a section called Simpler is Better (p 1305)

  "Computers are a blessing, but another of the things I have
   learned is that they are not an unmixed blessing.  Forty
   years ago, before computers (B.C., that is), for my
   doctoral dissertation, I did three factor analyses on the
   11 subtests of the Wechsler-Bellevue, with samples of 100
   cases each of psychoneurotic, schizophrenic, and
   brain-damaged patients.  Working with a pad and pencil,
   10-to-the-inch graph paper, a table of products of
   two-digit numbers, and a Friden electromechanical desk
   calculator that did square roots "automatically," the whole
   process took the better part of a year.  Nowadays, on a
   desktop computer, the job is done virtually in microseconds
   (or at least lickety-split).  But another important
   difference between then and now is that the sheer
   laboriousness of the task assured that throughout the
   entire process I was in intimate contact with the data and
   their analysis.  There was no chance that there were funny
   things about my data or intermediate results that I didn't
   know about, things that could vitiate my conclusions.

  "I know that I sound my age, but don't get me wrong -- I
   love computers and revel in the ease with which data
   analysis is accomplished with a good interactive statistics
   package like SYSTAT and SYGRAPH (Wilkinson,1990).  I am,
   however, appalled by the fact that some publishers of
   statistics packages successfully hawk their wares with the
   pitch that it isn't necessary to understand statistics to
   use them.  But the same package that makes it possible for
   an ignoramus to do a factor analysis with a pull-down menu
   and the click of a mouse also can greatly facilitate with
   awesome speed and efficiency the performance of simple and
   informative analyses."

Heyman writes, in the Preface (p xi)

  "The theory of structures is one of the oldest branches of
   engineering. ...

  "As might be expected from an ancient discipline, the
   theory of structures is an especially simple branch of
   solid mechanics.  Only three equations can be written; ...

  "These equations were, effectively, known by 1826 (Navier),
   or more certainly by 1864 (Barre de Saint-Venant).  Of
   course, although the equations are essentially simple,
   individual pieces of mathematics may become difficult.  By
   the end of the nineteenth century, indeed, many problems
   had been formulated completely, but the equations were so
   complex that they could not usually be solved in closed
   form, and numerical computation was impossibly heavy.  This
   situation gave an exhilarating spur in the twentieth
   century to the development of highly ingenious approximate
   methods of solution, and also to a fundamental reappraisal
   of the whole basis of the theory of structures.  These
   developments have now been almost completely arrested by
   the advent of the electronic computer; the Victorian
   equations, insoluble a century ago, can now be made to
   yield answers.  That the equations may not be a good
   reflexion of reality, so that their solutions do not
   actually give the required information, is only slowly
   being realized."

I defended my thesis proposal before Prof Hyman, then head of
the Structures Division in the Engineering Department at
Cambridge, and my supervisor, R Ken Livesley, a pioneer of
what he called matrix methods for structural analysis, so as
not to call it computational methods for structural analysis.

I proposed to work on computational techniques to support the
design of certain kinds of radio telescope structures.  Prof
Hyman's question to me was, how would I know this support
would actually be useful for designing real radio telescope
structures?  I had to learn how to make sure it was, and
subsequently used the computational techniques I worked on to
design the main reflector support structure of what become the
James Clerk Maxwell submillimeter wave telescope built on
Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Prof Hayman, like Jacob Cohen, wasn't against computers.  He
was worried by what he saw as a tendency for their use to take
us away from caring about, and knowing about, still important

But, as many here know, doing things with computers also gives
us first sight of, and then a means to gain insight into,
things we would not otherwise see and be able to know about.
Ken Livesley, for example, while working with Turing in
Manchester to put matrix structural analysis calculations onto
the Mark 1 computer, was the first to see that the stiffness
matrix for a real structure was banded, not just symmetric,
and that this meant further significant savings of computation
and memory could be made by taking account of this.

In my PhD work I discovered symmetries in the computations of
the mathematics I developed, and again used these to
significantly reduce the amount of needed computation, thus
making it a usable way to support real designing, not just

These computational insights, as we might call them, and
others like them, have given us an understanding of structures
and their design that the equations of structure theory could
not do.

Where digital humanities might choose to steer towards over
the next twenty years, therefore, would be a place where using
computers does not open ignorance sustaining distances between
scholars and their subjects of inquiry, and where using
computers gives them insights into these subjects that they
wouldn't otherwise gain.

It'll be like having our cake and eating it.

Best regards,


> On 28 Apr 2021, at 07:36, Humanist <> wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 348.
>        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                               Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                Submit to:
>        Date: 2021-04-28 05:33:46+00:00
>        From: Willard McCarty <>
>        Subject: envisioning the future
> Dear colleagues,
> I'd like to know where such well-informed people as ourselves would like
> digital humanities (as an academic discipline) to be in, say, 20 years'
> time. So I invite as many as care to reply to my constant question,
> "where from here?"
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty,
> Professor emeritus, King's College London;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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