The Holy Grail Redux

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Steve Nadis
Cambridge, Massachusetts

In an earlier paper ("In Search of the Holy Grail," AIR 2:2), I presented the first rigorous analysis of the meaning of the "holy grail" -- a term that is ubiquitous in science journalism and academic prose, ascribed, at one time or another, to just about every "big" scientific question in virtually every major discipline. Though inconclusive, that landmark study reached the definitive conclusion that the phrase holy grail is more or less impossible to define, having been used in so many different settings as to have been rendered almost meaningless. This latest effort carries my previous work to the next level, proceeding -- in the usual scientific fashion--one step forward and two back.

One of the best ways of determining what scholars mean by the holy grail, or variations thereof, is through "context." The basic strategy employed here was to apply my keen powers of perception to the body of evidence accumulated to date in the hopes that some kernels of meaning might emerge, if not leap off the page outright.

My investigation began where all good investigation begins -- at our nation's "jewel in the crown," the public library system. Like many a seasoned investigator, I called the reference desk at the New York Public Library to see if its knowledgeable staff could solve the riddle of the grail once and for all. Unfortunately, they offered nothing more than a textbook definition.

Next, I returned to the site of my previous triumph, my local branch library, where some years ago I first cracked the case of the grail. To my dismay, the card catalog upon which I had leaned so heavily over the decades was no longer in service. In fact, it no longer existed, having been removed and recycled for kindling years ago.

"One must keep up with the times," an apologetic librarian told me. I followed her advice, throwing myself at Web searches as if my life depended on it. And in a way it did, at least my academic life.

But back to the elusive quarry that has haunted me like the great whale that consumed Ahab. It has struck me, since the start of my inquiry, that almost everything is electronic these days -- can openers, "charcoal" grills, and even light bulbs -- and this is especially true of library searches. Yet the web forays were unproductive, turning up 347,625 "hits," none of which were really on the mark. For example, the statement that "balance is our Holy Grail, even if it's measured in thousands and not millions" is the type of vague, meaningless pap that wastes precious research time and can set back an entire field. Unfortunately, it took me almost a year of fruitless analysis before I dismissed that enigmatic passage and others of equally unpromising ilk.

An old-fashioned, self-administered "clipping service" that I have long subscribed to proved much more rewarding, and I shall recount the results of that effort herein. It is my hope that with these renderings, we can slowly circle around the grail -- defining its contours and range, ultimately homing in on its evanescent essence.

Which brings us to the paradoxical nature of the grail -- a feature deftly captured by Yale psychologist Robert J. Sternberg: "The results of Duncan et al. provide a holey grail rather than the Holy Grail, because as yet they have not provided the whole grail." My sentiments exactly, although I try to avoid obvious puns whenever possible--a product, no doubt, of my strict seminarian training.

But what do the innumerable journal entries tell us about the grail itself?

The Holy Grail of songbird biology--a frequent topic of conversation at sports bars and brothels--is the long-sought linkage of breeding success with winter habitat. The Holy Grail of statistical mechanics, meanwhile, has for decades been a mathematical problem called the Ising model, named reverentially after the German physicist Ernst Ising. But that could soon change, Science Magazine warns. A grand unified theory is often called the Holy Grail of physics, along with many other grails in the field, including experimental evidence of proton decay ("the Holy Grail of particle physics") and superstring theory ("the Holy Grail of modern physics"). Physics has traditionally been labeled a "difficult" field, and this is especially true of grail nomenclature.

Sources of cells that can be transplanted into the human body constitute but one of the holy grails of biomedical research, proclaims USA Today, the cultivation of human embryonic cells being another. Ignition has been called the Holy Grail of nuclear fusion, whereas the Holy Grail of Antarctic exploration is -- in a shocking revelation -- none other than the South Pole, if not Antarctica itself.

How can the average reader, let alone Freud, make sense of this parade of seemingly random associations? How on Earth is he or she to find congruity amidst the incongruity, coherence amidst the disparate parts? He/she is not.

In fact, veteran researchers have long since recognized the futility of casting about idly for a single, dominant grail or an overarching "Grail of Grails." During times of crisis, we'd do well to consider the words of Herman J. C. Berendsen, quoting from J. Matthew's classic text: "The Grail had many
different manifestations throughout its long history, and many have claimed to possess it or its like. We might have seen a glimpse of it," Berendsen cautions, "but the brave knights must prepare for a long pursuit."

To the uninitiated, it may seem like a hopeless task. Which is true, in part. But those who've had a taste of the Grail--and are endowed with the courage to follow its serpentine path--cannot easily abandon the hunt, nor let the treasure slip from their emboldened grasp.


There are so many people to thank, too many in fact, that I shall single out just one: Myself. For at the end of the day, despite the occasional pat on the back I might have received or the even rarer "beer on the house" or "free lunch," I was the one who dragged myself out of bed, slogged through puddles, snowdrifts, and all manner of obstacle to get the job done.



This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2001 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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