[ research ]

The power of the imagination is a wonderful thing. In our minds, we can reach back in our memories to people and places long gone, we can reach forward to futures that do not yet exist, we can invent things that cannot currently be found in the world, and we can travel to the stars. But however clever we are in our minds, imagination and truth are not necessarily the same thing.

Take the example of learning to driving a car. We will never learn to drive by sitting on the sofa and thinking about it. We may believe that turning the key in the ignition will make the engine start, but the only way to prove it is to turn the key a few times. Mostly the car starts. Experiment convinces.

The ancient Greeks could have spent centuries debating whether the world was flat or round, but the matter would never have been resolved by debate. In learning about the world, we have theories and we have experimentation and each is supported by the other: we start with a theory, we test it against experiment, we look at the results and we develop a better theory. This to-and-fro process has permitted the steady rise of science for two thousand years. It is probably the greatest collective endeavour that humanity has ever achieved.

In the rather earthy world of lutherie, it is exactly the same. It is possible to hold sincere views about the mechanics of sound, but if these views are based solely on conjecture, they remain unproved and open to all kinds of errors. Over the twenty-five years of my career, I have gained a certain knowledge about how guitars function because I keep doing experiments. It is not an easy way to work. Very often the experiments fail. In fact far more fail than succeed, but each one leads relentlessly onwards, teaching new things that lead to the goal you hold in your mind. A journalist once asked Thomas Edison why, after more than one thousand failed attempts to make a light bulb, he did not give up. Eddison replied that this was a misunderstanding of the role of research. He had not conducted one thousand failed experiments, but rather eliminated one thousand ways that did not work, which was bringing him ever closed to the goal of finding a way that would work.

All of us who research are in our various ways seekers after the truth. There is no better guide through life, and there is great satisfaction on looking back over the achievements of a career and recognising that one very small brick in the wall of human science is yours.

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