August 8, 2011

Welcome home Señor Rasputin the mad monk. How was St. Petersburg?

In the Klosterman article, I liked how Ato Boldon said, “sprinters believe that — someday — somebody will run the 100 meters and the clock will read 0.00.”  Related to scientific progress, modeling records, and crowding, I recently came across two passages.  First, from the Financial Times:

Da Vinci was able to achieve so much, so broadly, because so little was known. It was possible to make leaps forward in scientific understanding armed with little more than a keen eye and a vivid imagination. Those times are long gone. Approximately 3,000 scientific articles are published per day – roughly one every 10 seconds of a working day. We can now expect that these papers will, each year, cite around five million previous publications. And the rate of production of scientific papers is quadrupling every generation. The percentage of human knowledge that one scientist can absorb is rapidly heading towards zero.

Second, from the IEEE Spectrum:

Given any prospective problem, a search may reveal a plethora of previous work, but much of it will be hard to retrieve. On the other hand, if there is little or no previous work, maybe there’s a reason no one is interested in this problem. You need something in between. Moreover, even in defining the problem you need to see a way in, the germ of some solution, and a possible escape path to a lesser result, like the runaway truck ramps on steep downhill highways.

Timing is critical. If a good problem area is opened up, everyone rushes in, and soon there are diminishing returns. On unimportant problems, this same herd behavior leads to a self-approving circle of papers on a subject of little practical significance. Real progress usually comes from a succession of incremental and progressive results, as opposed to those that feature only variations on a problem’s theme.

You asked if there is some distribution that would model scientific progress.  I don’t think that the modeling would be much different, even including crowding, from other types of models in the theory of records described in the book by Barry Arnold et al. you linked to, with one qualification.  How do you quantify scientific progress?  It is not simple to measure like sprints or floods.  (The Eurekometrics plots come with the qualification that they are of “areas where discovery – not simply scientific output – is well-defined and may be easily quantified.”)

By the way, Barry Arnold was Bill Hanley‘s advisor.


One comment

  1. […] Ashvins The Ultimate Machinists « Goldilocks Da Bears August 12, […]

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