Well, we don’t know that. The prevailing assumption was that we would enter “herrliche Zeiten”, to quote Kaiser Wilhelm…”wondrous times”. The consequences of such abundance could only be good, right? Well, let’s see. An article in the July 18 issue of Science reports on research conducted by sociologist James Evans of UChi. He analyzed citation behavior and came to the conclusion that more and more citations are being made to fewer and more recent journals in a kind of convergence pattern, even though the journals may have a lot of digitized content from earlier publication years. He theorizes that this pattern may lead to rapid emergence of bogus scientific consensus, which would not occur if more publications over a longer time span were consulted. The sense that practitioners are united on a point may be an illusion, because they represent too small and too recent a segment of the total scholarly record. The inverse of that is the possibility that important, dissenting papers will be overlooked, thus adding to the impression of consensus which is not justified. Others disagree and say that user behavior is closer to the predicted style, in which scholars extend their reading both across the number of journals read and further back in time.
The Economist and Nature News have interesting takes on the Evans study, suggesting that the reliance on electonic discovery and retrieval has replaced browsing through print issues to the degree that serendipitous discovery of important work doesn’t happen as easily as it did before.
It’s not really clear what’s going on, or if people are asking the right questions. Some commentators are wondering about that very thing and have views you can read here:
The trouble with being Numero Uno is that you have all these little dweebs and twerps running around who want to make a rep by taking you down. Google is ruling the search engine roost pretty much, and pushing into other areas as well. Over the years, this or that product has been launched with the intention of knocking the Big G off its pinnacle and succeeding to the top spot. Another contender has come along, perhaps to join the guys on Boot Hill, and this one has the obligatory cutesy name: Cuil, pronounced cool, or maybe coo-il. It’s a product of some ex-Googlers, who were not happy with the way things were done there and so left. Pooling their talent and resources, they came up with Cuil. One claim is that the new service is much, much bigger than Google. Another is that the company will not store any personal information about users. Yet another is the claim that Cuil results will be better than Google’s because once their machine locates a page with the supplied key words, Cuil will analyze that page thoroughly for relationships and other markers of relevance. And a final claim is that Cuil will do all this with many fewer machines than are now used on the server farms that keep Google going. Ok, let them have their shot. It’s an uphill slog, but maybe enough people are dissatisfied with Google to let the rebellion spread. The company’s pledge not to gather personal data resonates with a lot of people who think the search engines are getting too pushy and intrusive. As always, we shall see.
PS. The home page states that Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge. There is also a picture of some green looking place with a lake or pond or something, and some Stone-hengey looking rocks in the foreground. Looks like Ireland to me, but it could be Pennsylvania.
This week’s issue of Nature offers a review of Journey to the Center of the Earth a Jules Verne classic, which is now in theaters. It’s not the first time Nature has reviewed movies: Jurassic Park and Contact were examined and found not too bad from the viewpoint of how they handled scientific facts. Considering what Hollywood usually does with science, this may not be much praise, but I guess it’s all relative. A reader could gain the impression that this is the first attempt at a film Journey, but there was at least one more, in 1960 with James Mason as the scientist, and, in an act of absolutely stunning miscasting, Pat Boone as the adventurer-hero. Those readers too young to remember Pat Boone can count themselves lucky, while those who do remember can just shudder privately. As the reasonably attentive reader can gather, the story deals with, well, a journey to the center of the earth. In Verne’s time, understanding of what’s down below was not the one we share nowadays…a molten core, mantle, etc. There were then, and there still are, a number of “hollow earth” theories floating around, so what seems ridiculous today was not so implausible back then. If you adopt even a modified or mitigated hollow earthism, it gives you the chance to have dinosaurs and all kinds of other things down there to appear in 3D and threaten your intrepid little group. Nature likes the way the movie and the actors respect geological science, even if it does have gasser lines such as:
“eat your trilobite, Son. You have to keep your strength up.” Don’t expect Great Cinematic Art, a la Grand Illusion but if you’re looking for an undemanding way to spend a hot summer afternoon, you might try it.
2009 is the Darwin Bicentennial. All sorts of interesting events are scheduled, but what has to be right up near the tippy-top is The Beagle project. The goal is to build a replica of the famous little tub, and sail it in the wake of the original, carrying out research projects along the way. The ship will be built in Britain, in Pembrokshire, at or near the dockside in Milford Haven. Plans call for an exact replica of Beagle, with lab space added, and concessions made to the needs for safety at sea, such as radar, GPS, radio and two diesel engines. But, most of the trip will be made under sail. Beagle was built as a warship, armed with ten guns, but carried only six on her survey voyages. I suspect the builders will skip the guns or gun-like mock ups in the replica, to save space and weight for stores, fuel and instruments. In his novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy talks about “repetitions”…trying to recreate a previous experience, with the same resonances and emotions, like Proust and the cookie, and usually not getting it right. But imagine this repetition. Doing the Voyage of the Beagle, again. I guess every biologist from here to Smolensk is trying to figure out how to get a berth. There’s an informative article in one of our favorite sites, LabLit. Dr. Jennifer Rohn interviews Dr. Karen James of the Natural History Museum in London, who is scientific director of the project. It’s really good. And don’t forget that the project needs money: dough, moola, scratch,bread, dead Presidents, the long green. I know the dollar is low and gas is high, and I know that the Market is taking a beating and I know that everybody and his Aunt Jane has a hand out, for worthy causes. But still, let’s fork over a few of those bucks and help the Beagle get to sea. When was the last time something like this came along? It’s, well, it’s exciting isn’t it? Tell me the last time you felt that way about something in science; not just interested, or curious, but excited! Read the article and find out how you can help, at the bottom of the page.
No, it’s not like Puttin’ on the Ritz. It’s just what it sounds like: the brain, inside the skull, the Head Office, cutting it. The person doing the cutting is neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik, and she writes about one high-tech aspect of her art, navigation systems, in a very lively and quite fascinating piece for Technology Review. Navigation systems are those hardware/software combinations which help neurosurgeons find their way to the target, whether that’s a tumor or an aneurysm or some other abnormality that has to come out or else. Briefly, navigation systems allow the surgeon to touch a portion of the skull and see on a screen previously recorded MRI scans of the area. Tap another place, you get another picture. It’s pretty cool and really helps guide the hand holding the instruments. But,there are some drawbacks. One, there’s another piece of gear to baby and fiddle with. Two, there’s another piece of gear to go in with all the other pieces of gear,and their various cables and connectors,so things get pretty tight. The navigator needs a clear field, so that dictates where people can stand, or rather, can’t stand. And,it all has to be sterile. Dr.Firlik walks us through an operation to remove a tumor in a previously healthy 60-ish woman. It’s done very clearly, with a minimum of jargon and absolutely no hokum or tear-jerking. You do this and then you do this for these reasons, here is what is supposed to happen and here is what can go wrong if we’re unlucky. At some point the gadgets are no longer useful. The surgeon’s on her own and has to cut. On the brain. Read it:
Dr. Firlik is also the author of a book Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: a brain surgeon exposes life on the inside, described as “witty and lucid” by the reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly. I’m all for witty and lucid. A similar book is When the Air Hits You Brain; tales of neurosurgery by Dr. Frank Vertosick. Those with really long memories will remember Crisis a movie of the 1950s, in which an American neurosurgeon (Cary Grant) on his honeymoon is kidnapped in a makey-uppey Central American country run by a Mussolini-ish dictator (Jose Ferrer),who has a guess what in his noggin. The doctor is pressured to operate on the Big Cheese right there in San Something, because the guy won’t/can’t leave the country. Everything needed is flown in, etc. It’s all rather a stretch, and Ferrer does not always resist the urge to ham, just a little , but there is a great scene in which the Dicto and his suck-up entourage insist on watching a rehearsal of the operation, only to leave hours later, thoroughly wiped out and definitely in no mood to party. Take that, you oppressors and grinders of the People!
The July 4 issue of Science has an editorial on Peer Review, again. It’s a “usual suspects” performance:there is the obligatory hommage, the statement of some problems, and then a discussion of “growing inefficiencies” in the way it works, since a paper rejected by Science can go on undergo several more reviews (as many as eight, the editors say), as it is re-submitted to other journals. Younger scientists in particular are too insistent on publishing in only the high-impact journals, etc, etc, etc. Some journals are repurposing reviews, which the Scientists think might be a good idea, as Gandhi said about Western Civilization. A lot of this strikes the Blogging Grouch as too de haut en bas, especially the last paragraph which is a mini-lecture on the need to put science first. It’s easy to be virtuous, when you’re on top of the pile. Marie Antoinette, call your Palace! A few pages into the issue there is a thoughtful letter from three investigators on what they call “painful publishing”. In brief, the extra prestige gained from publishing in a high-profile journal leads authors to waste time and effort in conducting experiments suggested by the referees, leading to delay and distracting the team from moving the project onwards. Hopping through all the referees’ suggested hoops is stressful and, in many cases, simply pointless, they say. Well, well. Not much new here, I’m afraid. It’s the Dickensian best of times, worst of times. Science is making tremendous advances and the knowledge and techniques needed for new discoveries are increasingly available. Yet, the dissemination of research reports seems stuck in a publication process invented at the time of Newton. Expectations that electronic publication would loosen things up somewhat have not been met, and if anything, the journal system is stronger than it ever was, and Peer Review is the bottleneck. So,maybe it’s time to break the bottle. “Oh, horrors, then fraud and crap would get published!” But, fraud and crap are getting published now, not to mention drug company flackery in large amounts, and in the banner journals too, as the dreary procession of retracted and exposed papers demonstrates. Do you try to teach the old PR dog new tricks, or do you retire Phydeaux and get a new dog? Just saying.
I guess we all should pay more attention to plants, which we generally take for granted. I’ve been forced to do that recently, since I have been trying to get some control over our garden, well, more the back yard than an actual garden, and as I’ve been working away I’ve been struck again and again by how really marvelous those little guys are. Our “gardening by neglect” scheme ran a little too long on the neglect side and some vigorous measures were needed to prevent the place from looking like something out of a Gothic novel.
Now it seems that my sweaty July lucubrations can benefit from some scholarly support. A new book on plants and the role they have played in shaping the earth and its climate has appeared: The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History. David Beerling. xvi + 288 pp. Oxford University Press, 2007 was nicely reviewed in the American Scientist. In these pages, we’ve praised the AS for its commitment to book reviewing, a function that other science mags have rather neglected, so more kudos to it here. Big picture, “synthetic” treatments don’t attract authors, who are afraid of stepping outside the limits of their specialty, or afraid of being seen as (shudder) popularizers. Emerald Planet seems to be just the ticket for a guy who wants to know about plants and how they got that way. The arrival of plants on Earth, and the development of flowering plants a good many million years after that, were immense changes to the planet, turning the inhospitable hot rock into something worth living on. Prof. Beerling’s book seems to be an excellent guide into how all that happened.
The always valuable Technology Review has an interesting story on a serious bug discovered recently which is so serious that exploitation of it by Evil Doers could result in the hi-jacking of Net traffic and its diversion to malicious sources. I’m not kidding, that’s what they said. It’s really, really bad stuff, and the flaw resides in the original structure of the Internet. One engineer, Dan Kaminsky, discovered it by chance and quietly began contacting software vendors and equipment manufacturers to see what could be done about it. A high-level meeting in Redmond, WA led to the development of an appropriate fix which has or will be installed where it will do the most good. It sounds like a Hollywood script idea and you can imagine the pitch: “Okay, this really good looking but appealingly nerdy software genius accidentally discovers a serious flaw in the Internet and before you know it, he’s on the run, accompanied by this really stunning agent from the NSA, being hunted by the Mob, the Feds, the Russian Mafia, Mossad, and they all want him dead and try very hard to do it.Two, maybe three big chase scenes, and lots of shooting. Think DaVinci Code with computers. I’m thinkin’ Clooney and Jolie”.
But, jokes aside, there was something amiss in the DNS assignment verification and the biggies did get together to work something out that corrects it. Businesses have to be double plus careful. The ordinary domestic user should be OK with regular updates.
See for yourself:
If you haven’t looked at PubMed for a while, you should. The first screen you see after connecting to the service has a football-field size notice about the obligation of all authors funded by NIH to deposit with PubMed Central a copy of the the final approved manuscript describing any research supported by such grants. OK,so it’s not quite as big as a football field, but it takes up a good chunk of screen. There are also links to the lists of journals which take care of this deposit responsibility without the author’s having to do it, and to the site at which investigators can upload the work to PMC.
While we are on the topic of PubMed, we should inform our readers that the Elves in the back room have been tinkering with what is described as an Advanced Search Mode for literature searching. A beta version is available for testing, and those of you who want to try it can do so by entering a search on the PubMed query line and clicking the GO button. On the next screen you will see, very discreetly poised to the right of the query line, a blue link to the current instantiation of the advanced search option. So far, it seems pretty much like the “advanced” feature on other web information searching tools….with menus of clickable elements to structure the query in this or that fashion. Old Birds such as the Blogging Grouch remember the days of command line searching, but I won’t bore you with how much better things were way back then…..although they were, by Cracky!
All the works of Charles Darwin will be made generally available online at no charge to users. This rather ambitious projet called Darwin Online enjoys the close involvement of Cambridge University, and is already well advanced. Material has been posted online since Oct. 2006.The idea is to bring together at one site all of Darwin’s manuscripts and private papers, as well as a mass of Darwiniana such as jokes and carciatures, so that researchers can consult them as needed and without charge. This measure will make the corpus of Darwin’s work much more accessible, since such consultation of the naturalist’s manuscripts and notes previously required traveling to Britain, and working with the materials there. Over 20,000 items have been cataloged and digitized for the online site, and illustrations by and about Darwin and his work are numerous and of excellent quality. Especially important are Darwin’s personal memoranda and clippings from the scientific and popular press. Darwin often made notes or comments on these clippings, and his jottings can be useful in tracking his thinking as he pondered biological problems. Specialists will obviously benefit from the general availability of Darwin’s manuscripts and other papers, but the site’s managers don’t want the general public to feel ignored. In fact, Prof. John van Whye is at pains to invite ordinary readers to explore Darwin Online. I looked at it myself today, and I think the team has done a great job.
Here’s a discussion of the Darwin Online project:
And here’s the link to the site proper: