Saturday, February 19, 2011

Science and The Internet

Computers and their users.  (Source: Wendy Rejan.)
For this week's post, I thought I'd reflect on a few light tidbits I've stumbled across concerning science and The Internet.  (The "lightness" of this post I hope is captured by the image above.)  Beneath the surface of such a topic, however, there is a much deeper and richer picture I think is worth some further consideration - something I'll tackle in a future post.

Google Science.  Google Scholar (and the closely-connected Google Books) are tools instrumental in accessing a great deal of scientific and engineering literature (mostly peer-reviewed).  I use both on a constant basis, as evidenced by the references in my previous posts.  Closer to the material world, Google Patents provides a valuable reservoir improving fluency in intellectual property, a topic which should be as quickly visible to match its fast (and influential) progress.  For the current and future scientist and engineer, these tools demonstrate great value; and at a price of free, they far outperform their cost.  Finally, these tools also offer clarity, i.e. direction to more scientifically-accepted data closer to the intended targets; they also offer the credibility of expertise and peer-review, a shortfall of fully-open resources such as Wikipedia. 

While this may be old news to most of you readers, it is a more recent (but perhaps under-promoted) event held by Google that possesses a more far-reaching implications for science and The Internet: a global science-fair competition for students aged 13 to 18.  When a company like Google believes that "science can change the world," the reach, the scope, and even the face of science can certainly expect to undergo revolutionary changes.

The Value of a Blog in Science.  John Dupuis, the Head of Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University, wrote in early 2009 an article called "If you don't have a blog, you don't have a resume."  Blogs can be a particularly useful tool not only for personal or professional writing; considering the time for science and engineering developments to reach market maturity, blogs can further be a tool to help evaluate and generate market interest, and to more personally communicate an emerging technology.  The materials industry may benefit most from the utility of such tools because it tends to have such a long time to market maturity (15-20 years, nearly as long as blogs have existed!).  Overall, a blog can help contribute more rapidly the kind of meaningful information useful to the "scientific commons"; this in turn can provide information valuable to more rapid technological commercial developments.

The Internet is Wasted on the Young.  ScienceBlogger Dr. Myers has recently written an article bringing to light a group of 8-10-year-old children who, with some supervisory help, wrote and had published a peer-reviewed scientific article in the journal Biology Letters [1].  In Dr. Myers' words, "The experiment wasn't that dramatic, but it's very cool to see the way the students' brains are operating to understand the result..."  Such exercises may become increasingly-frequent phenomena as younger scientists- and engineers-to-be undertake a personal interest followed by internet research, scientific collaboration via social networking, and writing scientific blogs to communicate and discuss their findings.  Materials science may not be the fastest discipline to adopt this progress, as analytical machines and characterization devices are costly; but as a childhood teacher of mine once taught me, most adults can't resist a) an inquisitive child in need and b) a well-written letter (or email).

The Message.  In a nutshell, The Internet isn't going anywhere.  But it is becoming an increasingly useful tool for the engineer's and scientist's toolboxes; and it should be used with its full potential in mind.

[1] P.S. Blackawton, et al.  Blackawton bees.  Biology Letters, doi: 10.1098/rsbi.2010.1057 (2010).  (Available On-Line.)

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