May 072014

I am starting up this blog roughly where I left off. I am still working on material that showed up in the paper, Prospects for Mathematical Crystallography. Despite the fact that the paper discusses infrastructure and access, I think I will go ahead and post on those two subjects anyway: they are important for developing an emerging or re-emerging field. I will then move on to crystal prediction, which I just started in the paper, but which I think should be reviewed in detail, primarily because that is my own field.

Science and mathematics history books tend to devote little attention to the infrastructure of mathematics and science. The traditional view is that what is important are the great discoveries, and the great discoverers who made them. Lately, science and mathematics historians have grown more interested in the process of discovery, and that includes a close look at how discoveries take place. For some of the natural sciences, this entails obvious infrastructure. For example, even before the invention of the telescope, astronomers used an array of observational devices, which cost money. These devices ranged from little astrolabes to immense sextants, not to mention observational towers. And while the telescope put a relatively cheap instrument into the hands of the masses, Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope was an omen of the incredibly expensive telescopes to come.

Even mathematics could create a demand for this kind of infrastructure: just about everybody nowadays uses computers for something.

But there was a need for another kind of infrastructure. Philosophers and scientists, as well as artists and writers, want to go where things are happening because that’s where people who want to do things are going. In Medieval Europe, that tended to be the big monasteries; now, it’s the big universities and big corporations, which are concentrated in cultural centers.

  • Scientists and engineers tend to be employees of institutions, especially corporations and educational institutions. Scientists and engineers not only need the expensive equipment required by modern science – and engineers have always needed expensive equipment, ever since Imhotep built the Djoser pyramid – but they also need libraries and colleagues. Also, many scientists and engineers support themselves by marketing their results, which means publishers, often integrated with academic institutions.
  • Artists, writers, and philosophers often view themselves as freelancers, but considered as an economic activity, most visible art these days (on products from book covers to billboards) is commercial art, and much of the text read these days (on products from greeting cards to computer manuals) is commercial text. Poetry is a multi-billion dollar industry: just turn on the radio (most rock stars are independent contractors associated with a small number of record labels), and philosophers follow ancient traditions when they hire themselves out to publicity machines or join senior management. Some artists (e.g. sculptors and architects) need materials, and all need to interact with colleagues. And all need someone to market their works.

All fields need infrastructure to build and maintain lines of communication and collaboration. Recalling from the 17 August 2013 post that recruitment is critical for new fields, the infrastructure must make a field attractive and accessible. That means introductory books and expository articles as well as workshops and tutorials, not to mention special topics courses and course modules. And in the Twenty-first century, software.

Beyond the colleges and universities themselves, there are several academic organizations with a particular interest in crystallography. These organizations can provide forums for events like workshops and tutorials, as well as assist in finding resources for developing and / or marketing books, articles, course materials, and software. Some of them also provide mechanisms for people seeking jobs (always a concern). Such organizations include:

There are many other organizations, most notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes one of the two likely most prestigious science journals in the world, Science (the other being Nature).

The scientific community is huge, and just reading journals and attending meetings can create a narrow view of what is going on in one’s own subject. Sometimes one needs a broader perspective of one’s own field. And occasionally, when working on a project, it is more convenient to use someone else’s invention rather than reinventing the wheel. For these and other reasons, it is often convenient to have a database of publications at hand. All these databases have quirks. These databases are expensive to maintain, so some are available only by subscription (and occasionally very expensive subscription at that). If you go to the public links of some of these databases, you may find only limited or no functionality for non-subscribers. Anyway, here are some of the major ones: