3 min read

On Original Sources

I have a history degree from the University of New Mexico, and one of the best lessons I learned from my professors was to always read original sources. As soon as you read another’s account of an original source, it’s been filtered through what that author thinks is important (and unimportant). Biases are introduced. Sometimes errors in interpretations and translations and judgements are made and not caught for hundreds of years.

Think that’s hyperbole? Take the famous case of the horned Moses.

Saint Jerome, who lived from 342 - 420 CE, is credited with translating the Hebrew Bible into Latin in his renowned Vulgate. However, he mistranslated the description of Moses as he came down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the commandments, and that mistake rippled down the centuries and into the form of Michelangelo’s status of Moses (c. 1513-1515 CE), replete with horns growing out of his head.

Horned Moses

The difficulty, of course, was in the translation (and the ambiguity in some of its passages), which so few people knew how to do. Consequently, subsequent generations relied upon and trusted Saint Jerome’s expertise.

To be fair, many scholars (including Michelangelo) through the centuries doubted or outright disbelieved Jerome’s translation.

So, what is the point of this? Careful who you trust?

Well, yes, but most importantly, do your own research. Or, at the very least, trust, but verify. For instance, instead of relying solely upon second or third sources of information that you found on some random website (like this one) who read something technical and is now going to impart their filtered perspective on the original source, you should be going straight to that source. Cut out the middlemanperson.

That sounds great, but what are technology’s original sources? In my opinion, it largely comes down to the following:

  • source code
  • RFCs
  • man pages
  • project documentation

These sources often quite tedious and dry (they’re supposed to be). But, it’s accessible. Think about what a modern miracle that is (to borrow a word from our friend Saint Jerome)! It can take a lot of time and patience, but there’s no need anymore to rely on dodgy intercessors.

As in any profession, you will only get so far reading second and third sources. And, you will know what most other people know, that is, what’s been meted out. That’s good enough for a lot of people.

But, once you start down the road of reading original sources, even if you start at just fifteen minutes a day, you’ll soon wonder why you wasted so much time reading anything else.

It’s a skill. Develop it.