Everybody does it. Even those who say they hate it. You can’t avoid it, really, so you might just as well give up and enjoy it. Science Fiction, that is. Now, the Grouch will confess to an odd SiFi binge or two, but usually, a little goes a long way with him. And the borders of the genre are pretty rubbery anyway, so what one reader will consider SiFi another will consign to a different category, maybe even to “ordinary” literature. And there are numberless snobisms and pecking orders among the seriously addicted about which authors are really SiFi and which fakes, poseurs or sellouts. It’s one of those things, like Time, that everybody understands until you start thinking about it. An interesting question is, how much “science” is there in Science Fiction? Writing a fantasy novel in which all sorts of currently intractable problems have somehow been solved, and set in places quite literally out of this world, is one thing. Bringing a story to life, and making the characters work while also respecting strictly the acutal discipline and limitations of the appropriate science, is quite another. In both cases, the writer needs a good imagination and a nice set of literary skills, but in the latter, the scribe really has to know something about how all this lab stuff works. Over at LabLit, they are profiling some SciFi by an author named Robert J. Sawyer who seems to be worth a good look. He’s a Canadian, and not a “made” scientist himself. But he prepares for his books, some 17 in all, by thorough immersion in the literature and by conversations with people active in the field. If you need a SciFi fix and haven’t tried this guy, see what the Lablit article has to say.
Robert J. Sawyer
Here on LibraryLlink , we have peeked at the status of the wonderfully comprehensive and varied databanks that are so important in biological research today. From The Netherlands comes a twist on this theme. A Dutch researcher, Barend Mons at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam,wants to apply the Wiki principle to the management of these databanks. So, as new work appears on Protein Whazit, the authors could immediately and directly add the information their article contains to the larger database. Instead of waiting, and waiting, for the file curators to do what has to be done, the “community” gets to do it, and to keep things rolling along. The Dutch had a test file up on the web and plan to go live soon. They have a name too…Wiki for Professionals. Well, that little country on the North Sea booted out the Spanish army, then the greatest land power in Europe, produced Rembrandt, Hals, Van Gogh and founded an overseas empire that lasted for four hundred years. Something like this should nothing more than a little workout on the light bag…not enough to break a sweat.
Online publication has brought a great many changes to the work of scientific publishing, and these will continue, beyond any doubt. Nature has come to grips with one aspect of the new approach to publishing but allowing authors much greater freedom to include in their submissions details of methods and experimental protocols. These are, increasingly, very important to the comprehension of the article, and leaving them out, or relegating them to some supplementary status does not serve the interests of authors or those of their readers. So, the editors will allow Nature authors to all as part of the manuscript full methodological details. The printed version of the journal will feature a careful summary of this material. The journal has always favored a terse, meat-and-potatoes style of writing, in which excresences were pared away to reveal the science as starkly as possible. In the online age, though, such economy of expression may not do full justice to the work, so the editors are going to try something else.
What shall we do with technology? There is a view that the question is silly, meaningless even. Technology will follow its own internal logic and the only thing at issue is how well we adapt to the changes. Well, not so fast, says David E. Nye, of MIT. In his view, there is a very large element of freedom in social responses to a particular technology, and some of these can be very powerful in structuring how, or even whether, any given technical advance penetrates into the social fabric. Nye points out that some innovations seem to work in two directions at the same time: computers for example seem to have forced a large degree of standardization and sameness. But they also seem to have enabled paradoxically retrograde currents of individuality and creativity. Our relations with our machines and the systems they compose is rather complex and a mere determinist approach will not helps us understand what has happened or what is happening now.
Technology Matters: Questions to Live With by David E. Nye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006, 280 pp.
Not bad advice, that. It’s coming from different quarters, such as the “slow food” movement, and “slow life” orientation of some Italian cities and towns that have quite deliberately refused to add products or services that will “process” visitors and residents faster. Fast stinks, they say. Lindsay Waters says the same thing about the way we read. We go too fast. The key to reading is re-reading. And this is where we want to grab the aspirin bottle. How, in heaven’s name, are we to f ind time to re-read when we can’t read the things that we are supposed to read, right now for the first time. Lindsay Waters is in charge of Humanities publishing at Harvard University Press, so he knows the territory. His piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education is not a grabber. You have to let the ideas work on you a little. Waters also has some things to say about the state of reading instruction, the low and still declining levels of literacy and related matters on how we abuse the young. But it’s the re-reading thing that got me. I’ m still trying to get through Proust’s Swann’s Way and the list of Must Reads keeps growing. But maybe the secret is just to face facts. It’s better to know one or two or half a dozen works intimately or at least very well…to slow down and consort with them…than it is to race through many and understand them poorly. This all sounds vague and even corny, but read the item. He does it better, believe me.
BTW Can you publish and perish at the same time? Waters apparently thinks so, judging from the name of his last book:
Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004). OK, should I get this or finish Swann?
Google has embarked on a campaign to conquer the (known) world, and as a part of the grand design, the Big G has a plan to digitize the entire holdings of major academic and big public libraries. There were alarms and excursions about this in Library Land when the first reports of the project and the deals made with the libraries were released. The Glacier moves on, slowly, but it moves on. Roughly a year later, the Libraries of the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and most recently Princeton University have signed on as participants in the project. Even though it is nowhere near finished, BOOKS is up for use right now. Some wags have dismissed Google’s projects as being in “perpetual Beta”, but if you want to give it a try, connect to Google, and then click on MORE at the end of the options line above the search box. BOOKS is on the succeeding screen. Be sure you read the explanatory material linked to from the phrase About Google Books on the BOOKS page. It will give some guidance on searching and on what kind of results you can expect.
Who? Alfred Russel Wallace. The guy, or dude we would say nowadays, who did not scoop Charles Darwin with a theory of evolution. ARW belongs to that maddening crowd of seemingly omnicompetent natives of the British Isles who accomplished remarkable things, at home and throughout the Empire which they were also creating, almost without noticing it. He was Welsh, came from a family in financial decline, had a spotty formal education and itchy feet, a feature of his character he would retain until very late in life. He was also a scientific genius, perhaps the greatest field naturalist of the entire 19th century,and a person of enormous resilience in the face of hardships and setbacks. As a young man he went to Brazil on an expedition to gather specimens for the gentleman collectors back home. He had taught himself, or avidly learned from others, the techniques he would need to find, identify and preserve his discoveries. On the trip back to England, the ship caught fire and burned to the water’s edge, consuming his collections and leaving him adrift in the Saragasso Sea. The crew was rescued, but ARW didn’t stay home long. Two years later he sailed to what is now Indonesia but then was called the Malay Archipeligo. Wallace remained in Asia, trekking through the Islands, sending home his finds and gradually increasing his scientific reputation. Historians now are generally agreed that Wallace came within a whisker of beating Darwin to the punch in publishing a theory of evoltion of species through natural selection. Class prejudice may have played a role in this, but Wallace seemed to be inclined by temperament to stay out of the limelight. It seems pretty clear that both Wallance and Charles D. had been thinking along very similar lines for a number of years. In a rather handsome display of character on all sides, an arrangement of shared credit was worked out. A large streak of the contrarian ran through Wallace, and his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography comes right out and says he was a bit of a crank. He campaigned against compulsory vacciniation, and was, hold on to your hats, a spiritualist! Yup, with the mediums and the table rapping, spooky voices and all. In politics he was definitely left of center. In sum, our Mr. Wallace was quite a package. You can read about him in a nice essay in The New Yorker , which also mentions several recent biographies of ARW. His enduring masterpiece was The Malay Archipeligo which even so great a writer as Conrad kept for bedside reading. If one can judge from the brief quotes in the article ARW was a writer of uncommon power, and only the fact that his other achievements were so great obscures his skill with the pen.
Note to Self: Get The Malay Archipeligo and read it. Read ONE of the new biographies of ARW.
Science produces a lot of research data, and much of that finds its way into one or another collaborative data archive. Typically, the archive is set up in a way that allows all users to make use of the data at no cost. The advantages of such arrangements are obvious, and the fact that such things can be created and run is surely one of the great triumphs of the computer/networked paradigm. The only trouble, well not the ONLY trouble, but a very, very big trouble, is that these databases are expensive to maintain, and money to do so is getting harder to find. Nature reports on this question and summarizes the choices funders are facing. There was a meeting at NIH last month, in which the database question was pretty thoroughly threshed out. The Big solution would be for NIH to create a super data archive, and run the whole thing. Or, the agency could push for greater “interoperability” between systems. At least one database, PhysioNet, has been told that federal funding will no longer be provided, and the resource has to find other means or close up. In a way, this problem is the outgrowth of success in using the Net to encourage collaborative efforts and foster research productivity. That’s all great, but there sure is a lot of data lying around and somebody really should take care of it. Who, and How? Universities, academic departments, professional societies are all quick to assign the task to somebody else. And there are practical difficulties, beyond “mere” cost. What standards, what systems to use, what media to require, and a list of similar questions that would reach from here to Lufkin, all have to be dealt with and solved in some reasonable fashion. Librarians know all abou this: we call it the “preservation problem”. And the data must not only be preserved, physically, as it were. It has to be indexed or described in some meaningful fashion so that other investigators can find it and use it. Hand-waving about “powerful search engines” that have not yet appeared won’t do it. Can there be such a thing as too much information? Maybe so.