The Future of Science
Writer/Author Michael Nielsen has important things to say about the future of science:
Why were Hooke, Newton, and their contemporaries so secretive? In fact, up until this time discoveries were routinely kept secret. Alchemists intent on converting lead into gold or finding the secret of eternal youth would often take their discoveries with them to their graves. A secretive culture of discovery was a natural consequence of a society in which there was often little personal gain in sharing discoveries.
The great scientific advances in the time of Hooke and Newton motivated wealthy patrons such as the government to begin subsidizing science as a profession. Much of the motivation came from the public benefit delivered by scientific discovery, and that benefit was strongest if discoveries were shared. The result was a scientific culture which to this day rewards the sharing of discoveries with jobs and prestige for the discoverer.
This cultural transition was just beginning in the time of Hooke and Newton, but a little over a century later the great physicist Michael Faraday could advise a younger colleague to “Work. Finish. Publish.” The culture of science had changed so that a discovery not published in a scientific journal was not truly complete. Today, when a scientist applies for a job, the most important part of the application is their published scientific papers. But in 1662, when Hooke applied for the job of Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, he certainly was not asked for such a record, because the first scientific journals weren’t created until three years later, in 1665.
The adoption and growth of the scientific journal system has created a body of shared knowledge for our civilization, a collective long-term memory which is the basis for much of human progress. This system has changed surprisingly little in the last 300 years. The internet offers us the first major opportunity to improve this collective long-term memory, and to create a collective short-term working memory, a conversational commons for the rapid collaborative development of ideas. The process of scientific discovery – how we do science – will change more over the next 20 years than in the past 300 years.
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