Reading about innovation, I learned how to beat scurvy

by Mr. Sheehy

I’m stuck at my desk this afternoon trying to log hours on my final project for grad school, and I’m getting so sleepy that I find myself wondering if I could somehow think hard enough about my project that the thinking would carry over into my sleep. Could I log that time? Would it count if some innovative idea occurred to me when I awoke? What if the idea did not occur – could I still credit myself the time for having tried? Or not tried, as the case truly is?

Oh, well. I’ll close the book I’m reading and move to a bit of attempted constructive thinking. My adviser for the project recommended Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations, and my own research into communities of practice has forced me to the source, Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice. I flipped through the beginning of both books, and while I feel an obligation to knock off most of Wenger, it is only an obligation. I have read so much about communities of practice and seen Wenger cited so many times that I feel as though I have a fairly solid understanding of his thesis and theory. When it comes to reading it, I suppose I am really no better than Fitzgerald’s Dexter Green, who

talked about books and about music. He knew very little about either. But he was beginning to be master of his own time now, and he had a rather priggish notion that he–the young and already fabulously successful Dexter Green–should know more about such things. (from Winter Dreams)

I obviously hope not to sink anywhere near such superficial levels (if I do, someone had better comment and put me in my place), but I am admittedly reading Wenger so I can cite him myself instead of taking other people’s word for it. He is someone it seems I am supposed to know about, and that is my motivation for examining him.

Rogers, however, amuses me and interests me, and reading Diffusion appears to be a nice way to pass the obligatory hours that have spread out before me. While it begins with those annoyingly broad definitions of terms with which we are all familiar (I realize this is a necessary process, but I have trouble focusing when I’m reading new definitions of familiar terms), it has already woven a few fantastic case studies and examples into the text. If I lose my stamina before the end of this book, I may flip through and at least read all the examples and stories, even if only for amusement’s sake.

Why not? Now I’ve got two dinner conversation tales ready to go when the occasion arises. My favorite is about the control of scurvy in the British Navy. Here, in 1601, a British captain conducted an experiment to determine whether citrus would prevent scurvy. He had three boats and on one of them, the sailors drank three teaspoons of lemon juice every day. Before the boats reached India, he’d had to have the healthy citrus eaters man the other ships to compensate for all the sailors who’d died of scurvy. Apparently he didn’t have any reputation or pull, because his experiment changed nothing.

150 years later another man conducted a similar experiment, feeding an experimental group of sick scurvy patients oranges or lemons. Soon the experimental group had healed and was stuck on medical duty caring for still-dying, non-citrus eating sailors. This time, however, the story got sadder – they ran out of fruit after six days. (As a side note, I would think it would have been pretty difficult protecting the fruit supply somewhere around day three.) Even here, however, no wide citrus-adoption occurred and sailors had to wait until 1795 before the British Navy made citrus a standard policy and ended the source of our wonderful phrase, “Scurvy Nave.”

Rogers obviously values stories – as his choice of engaging material and the frequency of their inclusion proves. I’m on page 11 and I’m already commending him for writing an engaging book and for considering the reader.

That might be overly high praise to come from a guy who had to start writing about the book to keep awake, but that’s more because I spent the first part of the afternoon watching our girls’ basketball team in the state quarterfinals, and all that spectator-engagement made me sleepy.

Editor’s note: Getting ready to go home after finishing this article, I discovered an orange in my bag. I chose to eat it.