(Roughly) Daily

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”*…

Some observations are best considered “interesting, if true”; some, a la Karl Popper, “true, until false”… Consider this very recent paper in Nature

Theories of scientific and technological change view discovery and invention as endogenous processes, wherein previous accumulated knowledge enables future progress by allowing researchers to, in Newton’s words, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields. Here, we analyse these claims at scale across six decades, using data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets, together with a new quantitative metric—the CD index—that characterizes how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and technology. We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.

The full paper: “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time@Nature

One notes that the quote above– from Lord Kelvin, at the turn of the twentieth century– immediately preceded a couple of decades in which physics was radically redefined and advanced by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, et al. (In fairness to Kelvin, consider this suggestion that his point was more subtle.) As we look forward, we might ponder the ways in which the reorganization of disciplines, the rise of research in other cultures (less constrained by the mores of “conventional” research), the use of AI, and/or some as yet unknown dynamic could challenge the phenomenon– “a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge”– to which the authors attribute diminishing disruption.

[Source of the image above]

* Lord Kelvin, in an address to the the Royal Institution in April of 1900

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As we ponder progress, we might send advanced birthday greetings to Wilhelm Wien; he was born on this date in 1864. A physicist, his work helped move past Kelvin’s log-jam. In 1893, he used theories about heat and electromagnetism to deduce Wien’s displacement law, which calculates the emission of a blackbody (a surface that absorbs all radiant energy falling on it) at any temperature from the emission at any one reference temperature. His colleague Max Planck colaborated with Wien, then extended the thinking in what we now know as Planck’s law, which led to the development of quantum theory.

Wien received the 1911 Nobel Prize for his work on heat radiation.

Just before Kelvin’s speech (in 1898) Wien identified a positive particle equal in mass to the hydrogen atom– what we now know as a proton. Wien, in the techniques he used, laid the foundation of mass spectrometry.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

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