Samuel Arbesman : The Half-Life of Facts

Scientometrics is the science of measuring and analyzing science, and it began in 1947 when mathematician Derek J. de Solla Price as asked to store a complete set of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society temporarily in his house. He stacked them in order and noticed that the height of the stacks fit an exponential curve. Price then started to analyze all sorts of scientific data and concluded in 1960 that scientific knowledge had been growing steadily at a rate of 4.7% annually since the 17th century. Scientific data was doubling every 15 years. In 1965, he realized that the growth was a factor of 10 every half century.

Arbesman wanted to discover the half-life of the scientific facts we know. The decay in truth of clinical knowledge about cirrhosis and hepatitis is about 45 years. Half of what physicians thought they knew about liver diseases was wrong or obsolete 45 years later.

Facts are being manufactured all of the time, and many of them turn out to be wrong. There were 845,175 articles published in 2009 and recorded in PubMed. How many of them were replicated? Not many. In 2011, a study in the journal Nature reported that a team of researchers had been able to reproduce only six out of 53 landmark papers in preclinical cancer research.

Lots of this new information will be overlooked. Arbesman illustrates this by talking about when Harvard researchers decided to go back and look at all of the prior randomized control trials relating to heart attacks and the drug streptokinase between 1959 and 1988. In 1988, a trial showed that streptokinase was effective in treating heart attacks.

The researchers concluded that scientists could have easily found a statistically significant result in 1973 rather than 1988. The efficiency of streptokinase remained hidden in scientific literature for 15 years. These days, there are data combing companies working on ensuring that previous studies aren’t lost.

“We persist in only adding facts to our personal store of knowledge that jibe with what we already know, rather than assimilate new facts irrespective of how they fit into our worldview.” Samuel Arbesman

In order to keep facts actuated, people should always seek out new information. Instead of memorizing facts, something that could eventually be outsourced to the cloud, people should continually learn. The current growth rates will also have to slow down, as they could imply that everyone on the planet will one day be a scientist. via


Kevin Kelly : Out of Control

Image source

I am sealed in a cottage of glass that is completely airtight. Inside I breathe my exhalations. Yet the air is fresh, blown by fans. My urine and excrement are recycled by a system of ducts, pipes, wires, plants, and marsh-microbes, and redeemed into water and food which I can eat. Tasty food. Good water.

Last night it snowed outside. Inside this experimental capsule it is warm, humid, and cozy. This morning the thick interior windows drip with heavy condensation. Plants crowd my space. I am surrounded by large banana leaves — huge splashes of heartwarming yellow-green color — and stringy vines of green beans entwining every vertical surface. About half the plants in this hut are food plants, and from these I harvested my dinner.

I am in a test module for living in space. My atmosphere is fully recycled by the plants and the soil they are rooted in, and by the labyrinth of noisy ductwork and pipes strung through the foliage. Neither the green plants alone nor the heavy machines alone are sufficient to keep me alive. Rather it is the union of sun-fed life and oil-fed machinery that keeps me going. Within this shed the living and the manufactured have been unified into one robust system, whose purpose is to nurture further complexities — at the moment, me.

What is clearly happening inside this glass capsule is happening less clearly at a great scale on Earth in the closing years of this millennium. The realm of the born — all that is nature — and the realm of the made — all that is humanly constructed — are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered.

That’s banking on some ancient metaphors. Images of a machine as organism and an organism as machine are as old as the first machine itself. But now those enduring metaphors are no longer poetry. They are becoming real — profitably real.

This book is about the marriage of the born and the made. By extracting the logical principle of both life and machines, and applying each to the task of building extremely complex systems, technicians are conjuring up contraptions that are at once both made and alive. This marriage between life and machines is one of convenience, because, in part, it has been forced by our current technical limitations. For the world of our own making has become so complicated that we must turn to the world of the born to understand how to manage it. That is, the more mechanical we make our fabricated environment, the more biological it will eventually have to be if it is to work at all. Our future is technological; but it will not be a world of gray steel. Rather our technological future is headed toward a neo-biological civilization.

: Continue reading :