Richard III, RIchard Crookback, the figure behind the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” was buried after the Battle of Bosworth Field…” a horse, a horse” and all that. Actually, Dickie was yelling for a steed so that he could clear out when the battle turned out not to be going his way. Richard III is best known through Shakespeare’s play of the same name, and he is painted as a supreme villain, rat, murderer, and all around bad guy. For many, many years the whereabouts of the king’s corpse was unknown. But he seems to have surfaced, sort of. A skeleton was discovered near the field, just dumped into a grave and lacking any ornaments or signs of royalty. So, it looked like some ordinary guy. It did, until somebody noticed the odd cure in the spine. Hmmmmmm! Could it be? No way, mate. But the circumstances were so suggestive that it was impossible to dismiss the possibility. Expert opinion now accepts that the skeleton is that of Richard III.
For a long time, people have doubted that Richard was as bad as Shakespeare made him out to be. The playwright, after all, was working in the era of the Tudor monarchs, who just happened to be the group that got rid of Richard and took the throne for themselves. And Shakespeare wanted to be in good with the rulers, so it was wise to portray him as cruel, ambitious, scheming louse and unwise to mention some of the other things about him. There even is, or at least was, an Anti-defamation of Richard III Society , devoted to re-habing the king’s image and place in history. A great deal depends on who’s writing the history and why.
Samuel Arbesman writing in WIRED makes a useful suggestion. It’s an obvious one, and that is not intended as a sneer. Re-seeing the obvious is a great gift, as you may have noticed when you ask a friend to look at something you wrote and s/he spots a typo right off, a glaring one too, that changes the whole sense of what you meant. So, Mr. Arbesman usefully directs our attention away from the hoopla about the importance of big sets of data to a consideration of data over time…what he calls “long data”. If your doctor tells you that your blood values are a little odd, and that X is a little low and Y a little high, that might be better understood in a context in which, over a number of years, X and Y have always been that way, and at about the same value too, and you’re not sick and weren’t then. It’s a better picture. You’re a ‘low normal’, with a slight anemia, maybe. So, eat liver. He offers several examples, but the one that impressed me the most was that from the Atlantic cod fishery, which almost collapsed. People were paying attention to the yearly harvest but much less attention to tracking the harvest through time. They would not have been surprised to see declines, due to over-fishing. His point is that we should calm down about the Big and figure out ways to turn it into the Big and the Long.
Maybe, just maybe. There have been some intriguing experiments in which various documents have been encoded in DNA sequences and then recovered by appropriate means. I admit to a certain difficulty in visualizing this. By that I mean, it’s hard for me to form a mental picture of how that would work, even if the Boffins and smart guys tell me that it would, and has. But, that’s enough about me. This is all interesting news because the problem of data storage is a very serious one. People are casting about for new ideas on how to accomplish high-density storage of large files, and how to recover them when needed, in some reasonably timely fashion. The existing methods are starting to bump up against their practical limits, so something else has to be made available and fairly soon. DNA as a storage medium may just be the ticket. It’s not the only pony in the race. Other, more ‘physical’ methods are being researched as well, and perhaps a lot depends on who comes up with a good method, if not a perfect method, most quickly.
Elsevier is in the view of some that ‘roaring lion, seeking whom he devour; as the Scripture puts it. The tender gazelle being stalked is Mendeley, described as a science sharing social network. A number of these have sprung up over the years, but some of the earlier offerings are being wound up or incorporated into other packages. CONNOTEA and UNIphy have already shuttered or are about to. One of the hottest tickets in this market is a package called Mendeley, which claims to have a very large number of associated scientist members, and its representatives have been very active in calling on scientists to join up. All these scientific social networks offer the opportunity to ‘share’ materials with others. In some cases, publishers have watching with slitted eyes as this sharing seems to have skated close to the line of unauthorized distribution of copyrighted documents. A scribe for The Scholarly Kitchen notes these and other points about science social networks in general and Mendeley in particular as part of a longer post on what has come as a kind of mini bombshell, if you can have one of those. Earlier in the week, there was an announcement that Elsevier and Mendeley were deep in discussion about an acquisition. Elsevier was said to be offering 100 million USD for the company, which would become part of the publishing giant’s stable of products and services. It’s not entirely clear how the announcement came about and even whether it’s accurate. Some comments in the Kitchen post express doubts about the price, for one thing, which is considered much too high by some, but not so very high by others. More interesting is the series of observations about what could happen afterwards. If Mendeley is acquired by a billion dollar company, possible legal actions for infringement look more enticing. Then too, the service, once absorbed into the corporate umbrella becomes JAC Just Another Company, and loses its edgy, outsider image. Way too soon to pontificate, but as is usually the case, a post on the Kitchen is worth reading and thinking about.
I’m going at this rear-end on, so to speak, in that I’m inverting the order in which the pieces I’m talking about originally appeared. The Scholarly Kitchen features among its contributing staff a number of very savvy people who have been in the STM biz for a couple of centuries, when you lump their experience together. The Kitchen started with a long post on what the industry is doing wrong, and more on that later. That seemed a little unfair, so I waited until the companion piece, about what’s going right, appeared and figured I would launch that one out first. The cooks, as they call themselves (or maybe it’s chefs) came up with a goodly list of things that the industry is doing well. And there was a fair degree of overlap. One of the elements commented on quite frequently was the fact that STM publishing had switched to a digital ‘economy’ swiftly and well. A number of industries have not. Photography, the recording industry, newspaper and magazine publication are examples of industries that have not weathered the shift to digital production and distribution at all well. But, STM did,after some initial hesitation. Other factors include: the existence of standards, a certain enthusiasm and even dedication to the task of scholarly publication, flexibility in dealing with developing sciences, a well-educated work force and so on. One person commented that the best thing about STM publication is that it exists at all. “In a world” as the guy in the movie trailer voice overs used to say, where STM did not exist, how would the work of validating and disseminating scientific knowledge get done? OK, there is certainly room for improvement and no room for preening or complacency. But, the cooks want to ask the whole STM industry to “stand up now and take a bow”. As I was reading the contributions, I found myself nodding and saying ‘yes’. I hadn’t come up with much beyond the ‘standards’ part, which is the result of a couple centuries of people trying to figure out things: are there to be references? If yes, where should they go? What should they look like? Units of measure? Spelling? Language of submission(any? English? German?) None of this stuff is immediately obvious and a lot of it can be argued in more than one way. Today when you send your manuscript off to PNAS, you know that it will appear very nicely, with everything just so. We don’t even advert to this rather wonderful thing, so accustomed to it are we now. And the shift to a digital basis was a triumph. OK, OK, next week we’ll look at the other side.
Yes, if you believe the result of a recent review, published in the Annals of Oncology recently. The authors surveyed a large number of clinical trial reports and found out that researchers tended to downplay the seriousness of side effects, even omitting any mention of them in some instances. Investigators also tended to exaggerate secondary findings, which were not part of the study design and could be traced to chance.
Don’t dig the grave of the printed book. At least,don’t dig it yet. An item in the Wall St Journal reviews the recent sales figures of ebooks and finds that the initial enthusiasms may have run their course. Muti-purpose table type devices seem to be cutting into the sales of e-readers, and the sales of printed books are still pretty good, especially for a medium that was supposed to be on its last legs. One perhaps more sensible prediction than the “all or nothing” cry of the enthusiasts is a rather prosaic wisdom dollop: the two forms will continue to exist, in parallel, for a while, perhaps a long while, to come. Ebooks may become the preferred format for “things I read on the Subway or the El to distract me from the depressing, gritty scenes surrounding me on my ride to work/home”. Printed books may continue as the preferred format for serious works of exposition on difficult topics. That sounds snobbish,on re-reading, but, just as people have different ‘linguistic registers’ in their speech, depending on whether they’re at dinner with four Nobel laureates and an Archbishop or yelling at their kids, so they may have different format registers, depending on whether they’re reading a Regency Romance or a history of the Crusades.
I mean the phrase. I am not qualified to opine on matters cosmological. A scholar at Cornell has spent some time tracing the origin of that phrase and has released the results on the arXiv preprint server. It certainly is one of the best examples of successful name-giving in science. Everybody who watches PBS or the Discovery Channel must have heard the term a thousand times. We all take it for granted. But there was a time when there were no words to describe this phenomenon, which, I think exists because it’s pointed to by other evidence. Observations don’t make sense unless you posit the BB at the beginning. But there I go, violating my own rules again. OK. I’ll be quiet.
sBiochemist Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away recently at her home in Rome. She was the Nobelist in Physiology or Medicine for 1986, along with Stanley Cohen. They had isolated and characterized nerve growth factor. Active scientifically will into her 10 decade, Levi-Montalcini came from a background in which a domineering father ruled his wife and daughters completely. She rebelled, and at first in defiance of her father but finally with his consent, began to study medicine. After medical school and an attempt to specialize in neurology which was frustrated when Mussolini’s racial laws barred Jews from professional careers, she went to Belgium than back to Italy and after WWII, to the USA in St. Louis, at Washington University, where she remained for thirty years. In addition to her research contributions to the understanding of neural functioning, she was an ardent partisan of education for women, helping numerous women from Africa enter colleges.
At 100 she claimed she had a better brain than at age 20, because gained experience helped balance any loss. Maybe. I hope so. At any rate, she was a formidable lady.
Sir Isaac, as everyone knows, is the pre-eminent scientist of the Scientific Revolution. That’s the rep since Voltaire and, I guess, Pope: God said ‘Let Newton Be, and all was Light’. So there was shock and astonishment when J.M. Keynes used a part of his not inconsiderable fortune to buy Newton’s papers, examine them and then say that our Isaac was a mystic, a numerologist and an Alchemist! Horrible dictu! No, that! Anything but that! But Keynes persisted. Many, many pages of Newton’s manuscripts were devoted to alchemical pursuits and that was all there was to it. He donated the papers to Cambridge, but the distinct impression was left that much, most in fact of Newton’s active life was devoted, not to real science, but to chasing fables. Because we all know that alchemy was a phonus bolonus operation with no scientific value. Don’t we? Until a few years ago, most researchers, and certainly most scientists, would have said: “absolutely”. But a recent and somewhat subtler understanding of alchemy and its literature has been growing in the past twenty years or SO. Nobody is claiming that the alchemists had it right. But the scholars who have been leading the new investigations suggest that not all of alchemy was baloney. There was, for example, a very strong and enduring body of practical knowledge on how to melt, smelt, isolate, mix, blend, reduce and otherwise manipulate metals. Alchemists devised nifty pieces of laboratory gear, and learned a lot about substances from the craftspeople who worked with them. Then, as now, an offer to buy a drink and listen to what the guy has to say without dismissing him as a cretin or boob could go a long way in helping to find out how things work. Alchemical writings are full of what seem like bizarre and fanciful stories, riddles, puns, maps, charts and other things which are miles away from the terse,direct, unornamented prose of today’s scientific paper. But they were written that way deliberately. Their purpose was NOT to inform, but to conceal, to misdirect (especially competitors or those unworthy). And some alchemical lit has no practical or scientific purpose at all. It’s to be understood as an allegory of transformation of human character into something better than the original ingedients. A new book by one of the leaders in the New Alchemy Studies movement is reviewed in SCIENCE.