The Higher Stamp Collecting
Setting aside all questions of institutional context, much of the
recent cross-disciplinary work—the sociophysics as well as the
bioinformatics—is fascinating and fun. Personally, when I scan
Phys Rev E, it is the "unconventional"
articles, the ones that transgress disciplinary boundaries, that I
am likely to read first. If institutional constraints discourage
such coloring outside the lines, perhaps the institutions need to be reformed.
Do we need disciplines at all? The idea of organizing universities
along topical or departmental lines is not one of those
long-hallowed principles without which civilization would crumble.
American universities in particular resisted faculty specialization
until the middle of the 19th century. Specialist journals and
societies came along even later. For example, Physical
Review and the American Physical Society are not much more than
a century old. (Publications for stamp collectors go back further.)
Realistically, though, it is probably too late to bring back
professors without portfolio.
What may still be possible is to shake up the Tree of Knowledge. As
an armature for classifying ideas, a tree is a rigid structure. Its
definitive feature is that branches diverge but never rejoin, so
that every node can have but one parent. The proliferation of
portmanteau disciplines—astrophysics, biochemistry and so
on—suggests that this single-parent principle is under strain.
Perhaps we should replace the tree with a matrix: Given n
"prime" sciences labeling the columns and rows, we'd have
cubby-holes for n 2 combinations. On a campus
built to reflect this architecture, you could always find your
department by locating the intersection of the appropriate streets.
("Meet me at the corner of Bio and Soc.")
It's no surprise that computation is a conspicuous element in many
of the recent disciplinary upsets. The computer has altered the
scientist's way of life even in routine affairs (controlling
experiments, communicating with colleagues, writing papers). In
fields like statistical mechanics the influence is deeper. Where the
aim is to understand the collective behavior of vast numbers of
interacting entities, computation offers a more direct mode of
investigation than has ever been possible in the past. Occasionally
the role of computing gets explicit acknowledgment, as in the
subdiscipline called computational chemistry. But if all science
becomes computational, there's no point in mentioning it. Like
mathematics, computation becomes everyone's silent partner.
Computation has even rehabilitated some of Rutherford's
stamp-collecting disciplines. Those who compile lists and catalogs,
who survey and classify, find their work newly glamorized in the age
of data mining. The human-genome project has much to do with this
change in attitude. Craig Venter, one of the principals of that
project, has now begun another giant list, sailing the Sargasso Sea
to create a catalog of all the organisms living there. Astronomy has
its own megacatalog: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey will list 100
million objects. What has made such undertakings newly fashionable
is the possibility of doing more with the data once the gigabytes
have been gathered up. In a sense, the database itself becomes an
object of study, in much the same way that physicists study lattices
rather than what the lattices model. Rutherford might still insist
that all science is either physics or stamp collecting, but maybe he
would confess some interest in the physics of stamp collecting.
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