I am tethered close to home by my chemo fanny pack and by my still disconcertingly frequent visits to the hospital, blood lab or Infusion Clinic. To be entirely candid, the tethering is due, more, to one of the side effects of my chemo that requires my being fairly close to a bathroom at critical times. Some readers don’t want to hear about such practical details, but they become important. Being confined to location gives me an opportunity to catch up on some domestic “housekeeping”; the kind that is altogether too easy, in real life, to let slide. This week I gathered together all the assorted boxes and jars of spare screws in my garage and began sorting and organizing them. Its remarkable how my brain is able to quickly slip into an unconscious active mode of its own, while I am engrossed in a mind-numbing and repetitive (but altogether satisfying) task. What can be extrapolated from screw sorting about my feelings about cancer knowledge?
Sorting screws is a bit like working in an archeological trench. Much is revealed but not quite everything one might want to know. For example, examining a series of different screws assembled in order of observed age might reveal how screw design responded, over time, to deficiencies experienced in their use. The series might tell of the arrival of new manufacturing technologies. Nothing observed in an archeological “excavation” provides clarity about the personalities of the inventors of screws, nothing of the patents for which they may have applied or the business realities associated with screw manufacturing and distribution. What’s missing is often that which stimulates the greatest curiosity. With respect to sorting, itself, the screw sorter faces the always-intriguing challenge that librarians face in common with them: how to sort and classify the countless variables. Variations are always encountered when one begins to look for and recognize differences and unique characteristics associated with individual specimens. It is useless to have a jar full of miscellany at one’s disposal when working on something that requires “the proper” or “just the right” screw fastener. Organizing the collection in a way that access is facilitated to “just the right” specimen or item is intellectually and practically challenging. This is true whether dealing with a jar full of hundreds of screws or a cyberspace “cloud” filled with thousands of links, images, documents and notes.
When it comes to screws, there’s a longer list of pertinent attributes to identify and sort than one might, at first, expect:
• Type (Machine screw or wood screw? I’m restricting myself only to sorting the hundreds of wood screws in my containers; segregating machine screws will come later.)
• Length (Often the first consideration I have when looking for a useful one to use is “how long is it?”.)
• Guage (The thickness or diameter of the shank of the screw is measured in increments from 1-24. The diameter can be measured as a root diameter [the shank less the height of the threads] or, more commonly, as a shank diameter [which is measured across the top of the threads]).
• Material (Is the screw made of brass, tool steel, stainless steel, galvanized, etc.?)
• Head design (Does it have a flat head, a round head or a pan head; will the head be recessed or left surface proud?)
• Thread pitch and thread count (This influences how easily a screw can be set. Is the screw self-starting? Has it been designed for rapid insertion? How many threads are there per inch? How many spirals of thread?)
• Purpose (Is this screw designed for use with wood? for masonry? for chipboard? for electrical? for sheetrock? for something else?)
• Driving Surface (Does the screw have a slotted head for use with a standard screwdriver, or a customized head for one of the several newer type of driving bits such as Phillips, hex, Allen, Torx, etc.? The design of the head essentially describes what kind of tool must be used to drive the screw, but it also has a relation to how easily the screw can be driven, and—its corollary—how difficult it might be to remove.)
• Standard (Conforming or not? …to which standards body?)
• Condition (Is it a “keeper” to be re-used or shall I toss it out as “damaged beyond re-use”. Screws are durable. Perversely, there are not too many to toss; they’ll have to be put away for future use.)
I’m going to have to pick up a few more plastic gadget boxes with flexible dividers to separate all these variables into some useful configuration!
Observation can deduce information about the screws themselves, but the study of so common an item can, in addition, reveal a lot about the evolution of carpentry after the Industrial Revolution. A new direction emerged at that historical point that led to the mechanization of cabinet making. It eventually evolved into the mass production of furnishing components. Along the way, the trend facilitated the ushering in of a modernist style of interior decoration. Those changes even influenced architectural design. An astute screw sorter could conceivably write up such observations. In the doing, he/she might realize an unexpected association: that at its inception, the new carpentry was—to a significant extent—based on re-use of durable and valuable components, and at the same time, perhaps, witnessed the general demise of re-usability.
It would take a couple years of agreeable study, followed by a few more of concentrated writing, to worthily describe the history of the lowly screw (and its wider context of social mercantile evolution). It might be an undertaking that would appeal to Henry Petroski, whose The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, published by Knopf in 1993, has become the definitive work about lead pencils and their development. Petroski describes the evolution of the pencil from its humble origins to its grander status of a once-ubiquitous implement everyone owned: the iconic yellow hexagonal Dixon Ticonderoga #2 graphite pencil. In telling the story of the pencil, Petroski relates a lot of social history, peppered with insights about art, communication, business, competition, writing and even poetry. The same dramatic and literary elements that were combined to make The Pencil satisfying to read, exist in the history of the screw. Archimedes depicted the first screw: a spiral device with which to elevate water. Leonardo Da Vinci imagined the screw as potentially enabling flight. Today’s corrosive resistant stainless steel screw fasteners (and others made from rarer metals and alloys) circumnavigate the earth, reliably holding together space stations.
In contrast to the likelihood that it might (only) take a dozen or fewer years to complete a worthy history of the screw, its startling to consider how many skilled professionals and researchers; how many worldwide institutions and laboratories; how may decades; how many millions of dollars; and how many patients and sufferers have dedicated their careers (and lives) to assembling all that we know about cancer… and to confront just how much is yet unknown after such a massive global effort. I admit to possessing an ignorant frustration about the state of our knowledge despite the amazing progress that has been made in treatment protocols. I should know better; yet can’t shake off the dismay. I do not, in the slightest, wish to denigrate the practical progress of treatments. (I wouldn’t dare, being fully confident that my own treatment will lead to my complete remission and cure.) Nevertheless, it seems perverse that we should collectively expend such effort and still fundamentally know so little about triggers or causes, environmental or nutritional influences, or the mechanisms of infection of cancers.
If I stop to notice my subconscious mind, clues to the complexity of the task of cancer researchers are revealed to me in the mundane task of sorting screws. Other clues come to me from seemingly casual conversations.
I mentioned to a nurse at my Infusion Clinic that I’ve been gratefully surprised (enormously so) by the milder-than-expected side-effects I was, thus far, experiencing from my treatment. She explained that colon cancer patients frequently endured milder side-effects than most. Colon cancer has been well-described and is generally “well-behaved” as far as cancers go. Certain medications have proven effective in mitigating unwanted side-effects. I’m given a dose of such medications, in pill form, before each of my infusions. “The same cannot be said”, she continued, “of patients with breast cancer.” Clinicians and researchers have discovered that not all breast cancers are alike. They have identified several distinct kinds of breast cancer. [This will require a few new sorting categories.] Each responds with various success [Allowance will be needed in the databases for annotations.] to different treatment protocols [A few additional criteria about protocols will need to be included and appropriately linked to individual cancers. Privacy protections will have to be accommodated to provide statistically useful information, but not individual names or identifications.] and each responds (or not), to a mixture of different combinations of drugs [We’ll need to add footnotes, qualifiers and descriptions of source documentation. We’ll also want to provide external links to data sets by which future researchers will be able to replicate and confirm hypothetical results, etc.] “Added to which” she tossed over her shoulder as she hurried to attend to another patient, “different personalities, or even their bodies, react very differently to the same treatment. We don’t yet know if it is physical, psychological, racial, or some combination of those… or of something else, entirely. But we’ll find out.”
The challenge of sorting medical information is magnified by the absence of needed data; indeed, the absence of data whose very absence may not yet be even suspected.
I, myself, have been left with a handful of un-sortable screws that turned up in my collection. They are oddly shaped screws. I can’t recall ever having seen their like. I don’t know what they were made for… what is their particular function. I have yet to (but will) find out what kind of screws these are. Curiosity, alone, will drive me. My annoyance at finding unidentifiable screw fasteners is hardly comparable with the highly important challenge of discovering life-critical evidence within worldwide specialized data repositories. How does one satisfy the goal of answering why it might be that two individuals suffering, apparently, from the same cancer respond differently to identical treatment protocols? The query is made worse by not knowing if the answer is, in truth, lurking somewhere in cyberspace; or if the answer is to be found in an observation that has yet to be made and recorded.
What’s to be concluded from this screwy rumination?
It is surely nothing less than to prompt me to send a conscious and heartfelt salute to the men and women who participate in the search for knowledge about our bodies, our diseases, our corporeal nature. Theirs is a meticulous, painstaking and indescribably complex task. Whereas I was struggling (while, in truth, relaxing) by undertaking a simple task that proved itself more complex than might have been anticipated, cancer researchers struggle with a complex task that has proven immense. Yet they persevere. Both tasks—mine and theirs—show signs of progress being made in sorting and classification. I expect that both sets of information will submit to useful organizational solutions. Learning about and managing information (irrespective of its subject matter or format), making it available for future analysis, retrieval and useful application is a new discipline of our own information age… changed as much as the screw changed artisanal carpentry. One can only hope that the challenges of the new discipline attracts genius intellects. Such individuals will have important and satisfying life careers.
 The following age—the one in which we now live—no longer values reusability in the same way. Our age depends, economically at least, on replacement. We purchase millions of smart phones, for example. Two years, hence, we will discard them in order to purchase other millions of the most up-to-date versions. I’m not certain whether this is inherently wrong-headed, or, on balance, beneficial. The observation simply reveals a continuum along which we can define how we conserve or consume materials in order to create more comfortable environments for ourselves. Some would claim that replacing old with improved communication capabilities makes us more efficient. Others would disagree. I believe it is generally wiser to observe and consider the implications of changes in our lives, rather than suffer their effects having entirely overlooked the causes.
 It is worth noting that the designation “medical information” is not sufficiently encompassing. Today’s cancer research deals with disciplines as diverse as chemistry, biology, immunology, crystallography, physics, molecular biology… the list is seemingly endless. Yet insights from each, if they can be combined into a concentrated understanding of interaction related to cancers, might eventually answer core questions that cancer researchers are prompted to ask from the grounding of their own specialized experience and observation.
 One sometimes hears an admonition that individuals should not exaggerate their efforts to satisfy (mere) bodily concerns; …that some variety of detachment from the physical body is beneficial to the spirit …that our goal is an afterlife where all will be rosy and well (if that’s where we end up). But, for this existence at least, the Creator has endowed us with both spirit and body. One might reasonably conclude that the second is at least equal to the first (else why would a corporeal nature have been given us?). To participate in the fullness of Creation (as is our goal and privilege), demands respect for and attention to both. Under such circumstances, it would be unthinkable that the eradication of such an incidious disease as cancer would remain beyond our grasp. It is consoling to recognize that the path, itself, has been, and will continue to be, replete with learning.