Things have been happening. People are writing new books. Smart folk are coming up with new gadgets, processes, and ideas. It’s hard to keep abreast with everything. But, we’ll try to review some of the more interesting developments.
The NIH policy on mandatory deposit in PubMed Central of final manuscripts reporting research funded by public money is in place. The sun is still rising and setting, people seem to be getting on with their lives pretty much as before, and the somewhat creaky machine of Academia has, apparently, absorbed this innovation without much difficulty. It’s early days yet, though.
The geniuses at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have come up with re-useable paper, or more accurately, vanishing ink. You can read about it at Concurring Opinions , a blog for law school profs. The post describes the technology and raises some legal points, as a law blog should.
How did we get Science? Or, where did Science come from? Tons of paper and gallons of ink were used in explaining this, but maybe we have some of it wrong. One investigator says we’ve got a lot of it wrong. The experimental tradition of craft and alchemy, yes alchemy, was very stong in the Islamic cultures of the Mediterranean and in late medieval Europe, so there was a very broad base of equipment, process and technique on which emergent Science could be based. William R. Newman has written Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution
(U of Chi Press, paper, $30) to explore the intellectual and technical background of the alchemical contributions to what became modern Science. There’s no bigger insult to hurl at a scientist that to say “alchemist”. It connotes fakery, ignorance, pseudo-mysticism and did I mention ignorance. But those guys padding around their laboratoria did learn a lot about distilling, heating metals and cooling them again, acids, etc. And these techniques lay ready to hand, or better, there wasn’t anything else to make use of when the pioneers came along and said: “Hey, let’s make Science!”. There’s a good review in Books and Culture
The UK’s Guardianhas a special supplement called Libraries Unleashed: colleges and universities confront the digital challenge. The slant is definitely Over the Pond, but the variety of topics considered is enought to make this worth reading: ebooks, library buildings, open access publishing, digitization and preservation all get a hearing in this overview:
Several web sites are reporting the news that a big German publisher, Bertelsmann, is planning to issue part of the German portion of Wikipedia as a printed volume, to go on sale in September. The price is 19 Euros, and the Wikipedia foundation will get one Euro from each sale. Some folk are scratching their heads, but this move may not be as retro as it sounds. Germany can rightfully boast of a health publishing industry, and the publication of Nachschagewerke or books you look up stuff in, is an important segment of the total effort. The printed WP will feature about 25,000 articles and 1,000 photos or other illustrations, and a team of editors from Bertelsmann is working to select the entries and pare them down to a couple of paragraphs at most. Some have noted that Bertelsmann made some rude remarks about the quality of WP materials, but it seems all has been forgiven and after all, a Euro is a Euro. Is there a market for something you can get more of somewhere else, and at no charge? Well, yes. I can’t vouch for this personally, but I have read that the German WP is less prone to silliness, pointless vandalism and Wikipedia pollitics, and the volunteers’ contributions are of high quality. In the printed version, the WP articles are going to be pared and polished up, and facts will be checked with Teutonic thoroughness (Bertelsmann is a major publisher of reference books, and their editorial/technical staff is very good). I’d buy one, and I’d use it with confidence. I think other people will also.
Most of the world uses the metric system to weigh and measure. We do not, here in the States; it’s not ‘Murican and we ain’t a gonna do it, nosiree! We prefer our own customary measures which are so much easier and not awkward at all…hand me that
13/32 wrench, not that’s an 11/64, yeah, there you go! The metric system was introduced by the First Republic in Revolutionary France, to replace the thousands of traditional measures existing all over the country, so that when you bought liquid or bulk goods, you could be sure that you got the same amount, whether in Paris or Lyons or anywhere else. The zealots not only wanted to get rid of the paralyzing complexity of the older customary measaures, they also wanted to establish new ones that were based some natural standard, one that everybody could understand. So the meter is one forty-millionth of the earth’s circumference. Once you have established a standard like the meter and the kilogram, you isolate a copy of it in a vault someplace where nobody can mess with it, and compare all other copies to it. Simple. Well, no, it’s really not. The reigning assumption about the reference copies was that they wouldn’t change, much or even at all, if kept tucked away. And exactly that seems to be the problem, or at least one of the problems. Scientists have demanded, and obtained, ever more precise ways of determining the value of the constants they use in their work. But, we still use the reference copies of the meter and the kilo, both kept in secure locations in Paris, to check how well the other national copies of the standards, well, I guess “measure up”. And this is where things get weird. It seems that either the refrence copy of the kilogram, called le grand kilo or some of the globally distributed copies, or some of them or all of them are gaining/losing mass. Nobody has a really good explanation for this, but one of the outcomes of efforts to solve the mystery has been a resurgence in efforts to find a natural reference so that everybody can know exactly what a meter and a kilogram really “are”. All this is detailed in a very interesting article appearing in the Los Angeles Times and called The International Kilogram Conundrum. The piece describes some efforts to create a better measure of the kilogram, which might not be so susceptible to variations, but I think the bigger story concerns why is this “mass drift” happening at all?
I have an LA Times link, but I don’t think all our readers can use it, so I recommend that you read the story on 3 Quarks Daily.
The blog Concurring Opinions is written by and for law profs. It’s worth looking at, because, law being law, odd and interesting things show up on it, often with even more interesting analysis. Recently, some of the posts there have been dealing with a new book by Jonathan Zittrain called: The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it.. There is also a sort of debate among the posters about some of the arguments in the book, but that’s OK. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American life. While that’s a great line, it’s not really true. We all are curious about the Internet’s second act, quite apart from the technology. If you are interested you can read more at:
John A. Wheeler, Dean of American physicists, cosmologists and other types who try to understand the universe, died at his home in Hightstown, NJ of pneumonia. JAW is the person responsible for the coinage in 1967 of “black hole”, a concept with a very specific technical definition, but the term has come to be applied broadly. JAW was professor of Physics at UT Austin, which is certainly one reason for this blog to pay respects, but he was also the son of a family of librarians, and that’s definitely another. JAW knew and worked with, or opposed, all the big names:Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Dyson, and Richard Feynman was one of his students. The surviving Wheelers are numerous and I’m sure they miss their paterfamilias who liked gunpowder and things that go bang.
This is the NYTimes obit:
It’s been a while since we peeked over the shoulders of the Lab Lit folks, and it’s about time we brought you up to date on what they’re doing. One of the things they are up to is building The List… not the Little List in The Mikado but an enumeration with brief notes of novels and plays and movies and such that deal with science and scientists, but not SciFi stuff, and not productions that descend into caricature, and the writer has to get the science right. So on those counts alone the bar is set pretty high. I was led to The List by a note on Lab Lit about a nomination, apparently made in perfect seriousness, of the Patrick O’Brien sea stories about life on a Royal Navy warship during the Napoleonic Wars. The science part emerges in the character of Stephen Maturin, the surgeon aboard HMS Surprise, the ship of war commanded by his friend and characterological opposite, Jack Aubrey. The person nominating the O’Brien novels, a professor of physics at a Uni in the UK, makes a very strong case for Maturin as a kind of scientist in the way that was understood at the time in question, and marshalls evidence from the books to show the doctor as an avid naturalist, busily investigating plant and animal forms in whatever part of the world Admiralty orders send Surprise. Maturin gathers specimens, dissects, classifies, keeps detailed note and forwards his contributions to learned societies, and just does all the scientisty stuff you would expect. Naval fiction is not everybody’s thing, and the O’Brien books make special demands on the reader in that their author was at great pains to get all the details of ships, shipboard life and battle at sea in the age of fighting sail exactly right. So there’s plenty of talk about mainsils and capstans and cutlasses and all the rest of it. The editors at Lab Lit seemed impressed at this elucidation of Dr. Maturin’s other self as scientist, and the O’Brien books may be allowed onto The List. You can read the nominating essay at:
You can also look at the rest of The List and mutter to yourself about what’s there:
Thomas Edison’s life and career are the stuff of legend, as the saying goes. But one of the few areas in which his ideas and inventions were bested by other approaches was in the provision of electic power to users. Domestic and industrial electrification began with DC current supplied from a generating station located no more than a mile from the customer. In time, Westinghouse, using Tesla’s innovations, showed that AC generation and distribution were more practical. And that is generally considered to have been that. But, DC generation hung on for a long time in special use situations, such as powering elevators.( I didn’t know this, and it seems that DC elevators have been around for most of my life). Now DC may be ready for a comeback, but not in a brawny, muscle-tearing application so much as right on your desktop. Computers use DC, and transforming AC and adjusting the power levels as the juice enters your machine can lead to inefficiences. An article in the American Scientist describes new work attempting to get around this problem. It may not be true that everything old is new again, but every now and again, we do get a real comeback story and this may be one of them. Who knows what else might be possible, once smart people start thinking about this some more?
On March 27, we went to the Texas Medical Center for the conference entitled: Digital Discovery: Issues in Scolarly Publication. The Medical Center Library, and the Fondren Library at Rice were the organizers, and Elsevier Scientific Publishers generously supported the event. Librarians and other interested professionals were on hand in good number. Formal presentations were supplemented by poster sessions prepared by teams interested in the way scholarly publication is being transformed by the Internet/web. A number of speakers emphasized the importance of “social software” to scientists. Several useful products already exist to help researchers locate collaborators, track themes and topics under investigation, post and evaluate proposals and results. The Rice University Press which had been shut down as unprofitable has been resurrected, and working with newer concepts in content licensing and digital technologies has undertaken a quite successful second existence as a publisher of scientific materials. Other speakers covered the effects of web publishing techniques in the humanities and social sciences. It was very encouraging to see so many able and intelligent professionals working so diligently on the solution of problems which might seem overwhelming. The level of interest and awareness on the part of the attendees was very high.