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Hard to Find: Discovery and the Science of Science

I have an article in this Sunday’s Ideas section of the Boston Globe entitled Hard to find: Why it’s increasingly difficult to make discoveries – and other insights from the science of science. It discusses a scientific paper of mine published recently in Scientometrics, which is the journal of the “science of science”. The journal article entitled Quantifying the Ease of Scientific Discovery (also freely available on the arXiv), discusses how to think mathematically about how scientific discovery becomes more difficult over time.

Examining three different scientific areas of discovery – the number of mammalian species known, the number of minor planets (asteroids) known, and the number of chemical elements known – I found that their “ease of discovery”, as quantified by using size, all have the same mathematical shape. For example, I calculated the average diameter of asteroids discovered each year, and this decreases according to a clear function (for those interested, it’s an exponential decay).

Of course, the increased difficulty of discovery within a single discipline should not lead to a state of despondency, where we assume everything than can be discovered already has been. Instead this type of quantitative research can help us to understand the social and technological processes that underlie scientific discovery.

Both the Globe piece and the scientific article were a lot of fun to write, since I got to discuss scientometrics and patterns in science over hundreds of years of discovery. In addition, all the data sources I used are freely available, so you should feel free to play with the data sources.

Here’s a figure from the paper, if you’re interested:

A shows the average size of discovered minor planets, B shows the average size of discovered mammal species, and C shows the average inverse size of discovered chemical elements.

Connecting the Dots: Harvard Symposium on Network Visualization

A shameless plug for a symposium I’m helping to organize this October:

We are pleased to announce the first ever CONNECTING THE DOTS symposium on network visualization, at Harvard University on Friday, October 22, 2010. The symposium will feature two exciting keynote speakers:

Alessandro Vespignani, Professor of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington
Ben Fry, co-developer of Processing and data visualization expert

In addition to the keynotes, we are soliciting proposals for guest speakers to give short 20-minute presentations. We are interested in any presentation that includes the visual depiction and/or visual analysis of network data as a central theme. Potential topics include but are not limited to network visualization algorithms, network visualization software, network communities and visualization, other network theory or analysis, and artistic projects centering on network visualization. Given the cross-disciplinary nature of network science, we welcome applications from researchers in any scientific discipline.

To register for this free symposium, please RSVP here. Due to space limitations, we are only able to accept registration for the first 80 participants, so be sure to register early to guarantee a spot! Lunch will be provided. To apply to give a talk, please submit an abstract of your presentation in 250 words or less in addition to your personal information, available on the second page of the registration form.

The symposium is organized by Michael Barnett, Jukka-Pekka Onnela, and Samuel Arbesman of the Christakis Lab at Harvard.

Voyager and the Limits of Exploration

Monday, June 28, 2010, marked the 12,000th day of the Voyager 2 mission. Since 1977, Voyager 2 (along with its companion Voyager 1) has been exploring the solar system and pushing the envelope of the extent of our exploration of the universe. How far these probes have gone, and how far humanity has ventured away from Earth (albeit indirectly), are intertwined mesofacts. And the current status is that Voyager 2 is 14 billion kilometers from the sun, and Voyager 1 is more than 17 billion kilometers from the sun. Of course, these are both less than two-tenths of a percent of a single light-year, meaning that we have our exploration cut out for us. In addition, the Voyager probes are not actually the farthest probes; Pioneers 10 and 11 hold that distinction. However, they are no longer operational, and so while they continue to move through space, they no longer actively explore.

An interesting side-note: I learned of this milestone courtesy of Voyager 2’s Twitter feed, @Voyager2, which was described as follows:

12,000 days since launch, & still going strong. Thank you, to all who designed me, put me together, talk to me, & keep me going to this day.”

I can only imagine that this is a subtle allusion to the ancient Jewish prayer known as the Shehecheyanu, which is traditionally said to celebrate special occasions. It is translated as follows:

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

For further reading about the Voyager probes, I recommend checking out Todd Sieling’s wonderful paean to the Voyager mission, showing its effect on a single person.

(reposted from

‘Enough with Janes Jacobs Already’ in WSJ

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about why we shouldn’t follow Jane Jacobs entirely blindly, and might want to curb our hero worship a bit:

Her views have now been broadly adopted and it is conventional wisdom in planning circles that participatory neighborhood planning is best, that preservation of old buildings is essential, and that in cities the car is bad. But Jacobs had a tendency toward sweeping conclusions based on anecdotal information, and some of them were overblown and/or oblivious to the facts. Perhaps most graphically, Jacobs predicted that the grand arts center planned for the Upper West Side of Manhattan would fail. But Lincoln Center turned out to be a great success—igniting the revitalization of the entire neighborhood.

More revealingly, the Greenwich Village she held out as a model for city life has become some of the highest-priced real estate in New York City—it’s no longer the diverse, yeasty enclave she treasured. Ultimately, many of the policies she advocated blocked real-estate development—causing prices of existing housing stock to rise and pricing out all but the wealthiest residents.

The piece ends by arguing that we should follow William H. Whyte more. It’s an interesting read.

My Grad School Advisor’s Textbook in ‘Spider-Man 2’

My graduate school advisor, Steven Strogatz (known for his recent New York Times column about math) wrote an extremely well-regarded foundational textbook on nonlinear dynamics and chaos, called appropriately, Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos. Back when I was in grad school, Steve had a screen shot from Spider-Man 2, where visible on the the shelf above Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is this very textbook, second from the top:

This scene takes place after Peter Parker renounces his superheroics and buckles down on his studies (for those who want to check, it’s 1:04:50 into the film). Unfortunately, this bit of trivia is nowhere to be found online, so I felt the world should know that a superhero reads Steve’s textbook (as well as another Cornell professor’s textbook).

Twin Research at Harvard

We’re conducting a Twin Research Project at Harvard Medical School. If you are at least 18 years old, click here for details about this Facebook application developed specifically for our research on twins who use Facebook. The application is a fun way to compare yourself with your twin by answering entertaining questions about how similar you are, or even to find out which one of you is the “good” twin and which one is the “evil” twin.

So if you’re a twin, or know a twin, please help us out. Thanks!

Are turkeys known for standing on one leg?

While it is well-known that flamingos stand on one leg for long periods of time, I recently saw a wild turkey standing on one leg while walking home from work (the Boston area is known for harboring wild turkeys). Is this behavior considered normal for turkeys, or other birds? Or did I see a turkey that was either strange or one-legged?