He was a medieval scholar, trying to decipher traces of a poem from the Middle Ages. He was looking at the only remaining manuscript, and it was so badly damaged that he was using an ultraviolet lamp to detect the writing. But the document was too burned and faded. Other scholars had already given up.
What he did next is helping to shape our understanding of history. It’s also an example of how small actions you take can expand your knowledge of what’s possible.
An email that shaped history
Gregory Heyworth is the name of the scholar, and he gave a talk in October on “How I’m discovering the secrets of ancient texts.”
He described what he did when he realized he was stuck:
“And so I did what many people do. I went online, and there I learned about how multispectral imaging had been used to recover two lost treatises of the famed Greek mathematician Archimedes from a 13th-century palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been erased and overwritten.
And so, out of the blue, I decided to write to the lead imaging scientist on the Archimedes palimpsest project, Professor Roger Easton, with a plan and a plea. And to my surprise, he actually wrote back.”
Like a pebble in a pond
The simple set of steps Heyworth took - searching for people who could help him, deciding to reach out, crafting a compelling letter that earned a response - sent out ripples that changed his career.
“With his help, I was able to win a grant from the US government to build a transportable, multispectral imaging lab, And with this lab, I transformed what was a charred and faded mess into a new medieval classic.”
That same lab then went on to “read even the darkest corners of the Dead Sea Scrolls” and make transcriptions from the Codex Vercellensis, a translation of the Christian Gospels from early in the 4th century.
Then he founded the Lazarus Project, a not-for-profit initiative to bring the technology to individual researchers and smaller institutions. That brought him into contact with researchers and precious documents around the world, like the team working on a map from 1491 used by Columbus that was no longer legible.
He took all these facets of his experience and became a professor of a new “hybrid discipline.”
“There's so much of the past, and so few people with the skills to rescue it before these objects disappear forever. That's why I have begun to teach this new hybrid discipline that I call "textual science." Textual science is a marriage of the traditional skills of a literary scholar -- the ability to read old languages and old handwriting, the knowledge of how texts are made in order to be able to place and date them -- with new techniques like imaging science, the chemistry of inks and pigments, computer-aided optical character recognition.”
Expanding the “perimeter of your potential”
In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, he uses the phrase “the adjacent possible” to describe how, at any point in time, only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. Whether it’s how animals evolve or how technical innovation happens, one given change makes other changes possible. “The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”
Applying it to you individually, an interviewer described the adjacent possible as “the perimeter of your potential” and that you expand the range of your possible next moves by actively bringing yourself into contact with other people and ideas.
When Gregory Heyworth searched for people who could help him and made a meaningful connection, he expanded his adjacent possible and unlocked access to projects, creating a movement, and even a new field of study, things he could never have imagined beforehand when he considered himself “just a medieval scholar.”
What about you and what you’re trying to accomplish? Are you actively looking for people who could help you and trying to build relationships with them?
It’s what people in Working Out Loud circlesaround the world are doing. Learning to take small steps that can gain them access to more possibilities.
You can shape the perimeter of your potential.