Commentary: Downsizing for old farm kids
By Dr. Rolfe A. Leary
Eventually, most of us face the task of downsizing or leaving it to heirs to toss the bad and save the good stuff you’ve collected over a career.
Had I stayed on the farm rather than going to college, I could have downsized like my parents, hired an auctioneer and had a farm sale. But I left the farm and, eventually, took up scientific research. Scientists tend to accumulate stuff, too—books, reprints, Xeroxes, unfinished manuscripts and partially analyzed datasets. Some lots; others, not so much. I’m in the middle, I think.
I’ve been inching my way into the tossing task over the past few years. My doctor says I have severe tricuspid regurgitation, so maybe I should pick up the pace a little. But there is a limit to what gets tossed, because, who knows?
I’d contemplated tossing all the stuff dealing with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon–sponsored First International Conference on Unified Science, a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City Thanksgiving weekend, 1972. I’d been invited to give a talk there on “estimating coaction from experimental data” by the leader of the Unified Science movement, Edward F. Haskell. Some years passed and the conference papers were not published, leaving it to each speaker to find an outlet or to work his or her talk contents into another paper.
In 1972, some speakers brought copies of their talks to share. Also on the program was Haskell’s close friend Dr. William Van Orman Quine, Harvard University distinguished professor of philosophy, who spoke on “levels of abstraction.” A copy of Quine’s paper has been in my “keep or discard” pile since then. I opted for the “well, you never know” hoarder strategy and kept it, and kept it, and kept it.
So 42 years later 2014 comes along and a group of philosophers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland organize an international meeting—“Quine and His Place in History”—and put out a call for papers. Dr. Douglas Quine, son of Van Quine, asked if I wanted to work with Dr. Ann Lodge (married to Edward Haskell in the 1950s) on a paper about the Quine-Haskell collaboration on Unified Science. Both Ann and I agreed.
As we roughed out our proposed paper for evaluation by the organizers, I mentioned the 1972 paper. I was told the title is known, but no one has a copy of what Van Quine actually said. I replied, “I know an Iowa farm kid who has a copy!”
After scanning it and emailing it to Scotland, the meeting organizers were extremely pleased. Their meeting proceedings will contain a never-before-seen paper by Quine. Unheard of!
So recently, I was asleep, dreaming of trying to spread the word of my good hoarding to folks who might appreciate it and dreamt I was in the old Hungry Mind bookstore near Macalester College in St. Paul. There were some professorial types seated at tables deeply reading whatever, and I wasn’t having much luck interesting them in my Quine story. A younger woman seated near the rear raised her hand and said, “Dr. Leary, from your presentation here it looks like your thinking has progressed beyond the concave.”
OMG, I’ve been volunteering for too many years at Compatible Technology International trying to develop a pearl millet thresher for Africa. Talk about a “free association- instrument”—the old farm kid brain never stops.
Well, eventually, it will.
Dr. Rolfe Leary was a scientist at the USDA Forest Service lab on the Univer- sity of Minnesota from 1968 to 1996.
Quite nice to have saved something you actually used. So far I find I have just tossed out the thing I saved for years when I actually have a use for it.