The whole passage: "Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, ‘These are the conditions, now what happens next?’ But all our sister sciences have a completely different problem: in fact all the other things that are studied — history, geology, astronomical history — have a problem of this other kind. I find they are able to make predictions of a completely different type from those of a physicist. A physicist says, 'In this condition I’ll tell you what will happen next’. But a geologist will say something like this — 'I have dug in the ground and I have found certain kinds of bones. I predict that if you dig in the ground you will find a similar kind of bones’. The historian, although he talks about the past, can do it by talking about the future. When he says that the French Revolution was in 1789, he means that if you look in another book about the French Revolution you will find the same date. What he does is to make a kind of prediction about something that he has never looked at before, documents that have still to be found. He predicts that the documents in which there is something written about Napoleon will coincide with what is written in the other documents. The question is how that is possible…"
The Shadow Divers is, unintentionally perhaps, a testimonial to the value of having passionate, dedicated, amateurs involved in the exploration of history.
It’s a beautiful story about how a group of deep sea salvage divers who, in 1991, discover the remains of an unidentified WWII U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. The wreck should not have been there, and figuring out what it is and where it came from becomes an obsession — even to the point where they were willing to become real scholars to solve the mystery. And they discovered a universal truth: experts can be wrong.
Over the last half century, various assessors had ascribed three fates to U-879: they first pronounced her lost without a trace; then sunk off Halifax in Canadian waters; then sunk off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. As the divers studied further, they recognized that the current assessment by German naval historian Axel Niestlé - - that U-879 had been sunk off Cape Hatteras - - was correct. But the lesson was stark and by now familiar: written history was fallible. Sloppy and erroneous assessments had been rushed into the official record, only to be presumed accurate by historians, who then published elegant reference works echoing the mistakes. Unless a person was willing, as Chatterton and Kohler were, to ditch work, and sneak off to Washington, chisel away at mountains of opaque original documents, sleep in fleabag motels, eat street-vendor hot dogs, and run outside every two hours to shovel quarters into a parking meter, he would presume the history books to be correct.
Amateurs like these aren’t bound to established orthodoxies, they don’t play by the rules, and they’re driven by curiosity, frustration, and a sense of moral justice for the truth. These guys are heroes to me.