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Was Sherlock Holmes a historian?+ #48

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‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.’ -Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and working together. We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (https://t.me/GiftedIndia).

In this week’s main post ‘Was Sherlock Holmes a historian?’, GenWise mentor, Sriram Naganathan, argues that the reasoning process employed by the famous fictional detective is similar to what historians do. And not just historians, but also lawyers, doctors and many other professions. Sriram is running a 1-week course ‘Reason like Sherlock Holmes’ in the upcoming Genesis Summer Program in May 2022 at Manipal University in Manipal, for students currently in grade 7, 8 or 9.

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Was Sherlock Holmes a historian?


Upcoming Events

Was Sherlock Holmes a historian?

The author of this post, GenWise mentor, Sriram Naganathan, argues that the reasoning process employed by the famous fictional detective is similar to what historians do. And not just historians, but also lawyers, doctors and many other professions. Sriram is running a 1-week course ‘Reason like Sherlock Holmes’ in the upcoming Genesis Summer Program in May 2022 at Manipal University in Manipal, for students currently in grade 7, 8 or 9.

Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective, who solves crimes that lie beyond the grasp of Scotland Yard (UK’s police), as a historian? If the idea shocks you, consider this: history deals with the past, investigating a murder or theft is as good as historical inquiry – what professional historians do. Therefore, Sherlock Holmes can be said to be a historian.

Let’s explore this a bit. History is mostly about intelligent guesswork about ‘what could have happened?’. Except in the case of events in the very recent past, it is unlikely that there would be a witness to testify what actually happened. We arrive at possibilities through analysis of objects and inscriptions about events, and pick the one that we consider most likely.

Sometimes, what is not present also tells us a story – like the absence of horse figures in seals and objects of an ancient civilization could lead us to infer that the people in that civilization didn’t use horses.

A single object could tell us a very interesting story.

Consider a broken, but healed thigh bone, the femur, the longest in the human body, estimated to be about 15,000 years old. What can it tell us? A lot.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead considered this broken but healed thigh bone, as the first available sign of humans caring for each other. She reasoned like this: in the animal kingdom in the ancient world,  for any animal that had a broken leg, survival would be nearly impossible. You cannot run from predicators; nor can you hunt for food or look for water to drink because you cannot move. Given that a broken thigh bone would take several weeks to heal,  you either starve to death or end up eaten by another animal.

So where does this place a broken, but healed thigh bone? A broken thigh bone that has healed is probably evidence that a fellow human has chosen to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery – which would have taken several weeks without modern medicine.

Had Holmes seen the broken and healed thigh bone, he might not have said anything about the first sign of civilization. But pretty surely, he would have come to the same conclusion of what could have happened, just like Mead did.

In fact, a historian’s job is a bit tougher than that of a detective like Holmes.

Holmes asks for (and gets) testimonies of people connected with or witnesses to the crime. He also gathers all kinds of objects and testimonies as evidence. Sometimes, he points out what didn’t happen – and that also constitutes evidence. For example, in the story of ‘Silver Blaze’ centred around a famed racehorse that is stolen, the fact that the house dog did not bark during the night when the horse was stolen from the stable was a critical clue for Holmes to solve the mystery of who removed the horse. He infers that it ought to be a person known to the dog. Else, the dog would have barked.

In contrast, a historian usually has no access to testimonies of people who are long dead and gone. (S)he must go by evidence and hence the inference could be very tentative. The evidence becomes flimsier over decades and centuries. So, a historian should try harder to piece together evidence and be ever willing to change his/her inference if new evidence arises. For example, till about 200 years ago, Emperor Ashoka was thought to be a mythical figure before his inscriptions across the sub-continent were deciphered to confirm that he was a Mauryan king who ruled from modern Bihar. The Indus Valley Civilization, which pushed back the history of India by a few millennia, came to be known only about a little over 100 years ago.

The reasoning of Holmes is applicable not just to historians.  This is the same kind of reasoning that doctors and lawyers employ. When a prosecution lawyer marshals evidence to convince the judge that the accused did commit the crime, he follows pretty much the logic employed by Holmes. Ditto a doctor who diagnoses disease from symptoms, what the patient says, and what he has read in his textbooks.

Upcoming Events

Summer Programs from GenWise (Residential)- May 8- May 29 (Paid)

If your child is currently in grade 7, 8 or 9, check out the Genesis Summer Program from May 8-29, 2022, at Manipal University, Manipal. While most students will attend the entire 3-week program, there also exist 1 or 2 week options. We have an orientation webinar for parents on Sunday, March 6 at 11 AM for interested parents. Please register here to receive the zoom link for the session. The Genesis Summer Program offers an early bird discount for registrations completed before the 15th of March.

The academic enrichment component of the program features 3 courses- one in each week.


May 8-15: Reason like Sherlock Holmes– Become familiar with the reasoning process employed not just by detectives, but also by doctors, lawyers, historians, archaeologists, and virtually every domain where one is trying to piece together the full picture, from available clues. Unpack short stories from Sherlock Holmes (and potentially others, based on student interest) to appreciate the process of reasoning better.


May 15-22: Molecular Gastronomy- Intro to Culinary Science– This course at the intersection of Chemistry and Cooking is a great way to experience the power of science in our daily life experiences. The course emphasizes the role of sciences in cooking and how the world over, it has started to make a difference if the chefs understand the science that goes into it. Sessions at the world-class kitchen of the Welcomgroup School of Hotel Administration will involve working with materials like liquid nitrogen, dry ice and agar gels to create some exceptional dishes through the application of science.


May 22-29: Experiment Design for Critical Thinkers– Appreciate the importance of Experiment Design in exploring answers to relevant questions, whatever the domain (Economics, Engineering, Psychology, Marketing, Materials Science, Medicine, etc.). Often not taught formally at school (or even at College level), learn the vital skills necessary for understanding the role of variables, apples-to-apples comparisons, the role of bias, and how to attempt to overcome bias.

The program is much more than the academic enrichment component represented by the courses listed above and the goal of the program is to help with the development of the whole child- read more about the program experience in this post.

Please note that the Genesis Summer Program runs concurrently with the GenWise Summer Program (open to Ei ASSET Talent Search (ATS) Gold/ Silver/ Bronze scholars).

Students of both programs will be participating in common activities together, outside of the academic hours. 

Feel free to reach out to our leadership team at the numbers below.

Rajesh  @98409 70514; Vishnu @93422 47734; Shrikant @98600 33502; Sowmya @75985 66949

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