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In many, if not most, disciplines methods age, get old and eventually become more or less obsolete, in the sense that some other method perhaps using a different technology becomes common-practice for a particular type of experimentation. One such example could be Edman sequencing, which used to be the method for sequencing peptides, but is pretty much outdated nowadays, not because it does not work, but because it's costly in time and labor.

In my experience, these old/obsolete techniques are taught both at Masters and PhD level, primarily to give a deep understanding of the field, albeit being more theory than practice. Are there any other benefits in learning/studying older methods, rather than only studying the state-of-the-art?

I was wondering how often, if at all, such old methodologies come back (perhaps following a breakthrough in overcoming some original limitation) and regain popularity. Are there known examples?

As a follow-up; is such change in methodologies a phenomenon observed in experimental research, or are there equivalent scenarios in theoretical research as well?

  • In regards to a breakthrough in overcoming some original limitation I suspect there are some old manual methodologies which would have been replaced by a faster manual methodology which could now be useful again with advances in technology (for example, computers). Therefore, I think learning the old stuff can be important; if not now, it might become important later. – earthling May 20 '13 at 14:30
  • Maybe just a matter of seminatics, but if it becomes useful again, it cannot be obsolete. I guess the point is that you will never know in general what may be truly obsolete. – Peter Jansson May 20 '13 at 14:45
  • @PeterJansson good point, rephrased the title to reflect that. – posdef May 20 '13 at 14:52
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    This question is very general and vague; a more specific question might get better answers. – Nate Eldredge May 21 '13 at 12:52
  • @NateEldredge I see your point, I have thought about it before I posted the question as well. However I couldn't come up with a better formulation that was both more clear/specific and general enough to be interesting to others. I am of course open for suggestions... – posdef May 21 '13 at 15:29
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There are some important examples of techniques and problems being "revived" after having lain dormant for many years. For instance, in my own field, one of the cornerstones of computer modeling was originally derived in the 1920's, and then basically remained undeveloped until the 1970's, when it was brought back in fashion. (It has since been replaced by faster methods, but it is still regarded as the "touchstone" for high-accuracy calculations.)

Similarly, entire fields of research may have been developed before the applications caught up with them. Again, bringing up an example from my own field of research, the class of materials known as ionic liquids was known as far back as the early 1900's, but again were forgotten until the 1990's (or so) when they were "rediscovered" because they were nonvolatile materials and could be used as replacement solvents in the chemical industry. (It also offered the ability to do "combinatorial chemistry," which was also coming into fashion.)

THe point of these examples is that sometimes theoretical and even experimental techniques may be developed in one era, but the ability to exploit the technology to its fullest extent has not yet been attained. Keeping awareness of such methods thus can have some use. Whether it should be taught to every student of a field is a different issue.

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