Things that Science Knows, but Scientists Don’t

snowflakeHundreds of millions of scientific records, from papers to bureaucratic reports. They form a brain-like network where each node interacts with the others through us. Is science an emergent being who knows more than the scientists?

It was about ten years ago when I started to develop the Newton-X program.

(Not important for this post, but in simple terms Newton-X is a program to simulate the dynamics of molecules excited by light.)

For a long time l had full control of the content and structure of the program. l was either coding it myself or closely controlling the contributions from other colleagues.

I didn’t realize immediately, but this situation radically changed over the years. At some point I didn’t have full control of Newton-X anymore.

Many of the codes and procedures there are relatively unfamiliar to me. They have been written by other coworkers; I only tested and included them into the distribution version. Right now, l would have to follow the tutorial instructions like a newbie, if I wanted to simulate a photoionization spectrum for instance.

What’s funny is that I’m still the person who knows the program the best. This means that Newton-X became relatively bigger than each of us, the developers, individually.

It’s a bit unsettling to think that our program is out of our full control. But this is far from being rare in science. The Newton-X project with its half-dozen developers and few hundred users is nothing compared to large-scale scientific projects like space missions, genomic transcriptions, or high-energy collisions. Projects in these fields commonly involve thousands of people at once.

Do you believe that even the leading scientist of one of those high-profile publications, which occasionally make the news featuring more than 1000 authors, could answer about all aspects of that research? Of course not. And this is no demerit. It’s just acknowledgment that science developed into a complex enterprise, which extrapolates the capacities of a single human mind.

An enterprise where each agent is bound to give a hyper-specialized contribution (like simulations of molecules excited by light), having little understanding of the big picture; maybe just like termites instinctively building their nest without seeing the “cathedral” emerging from their work.


Since I realized that, I can’t stop wondering: is science becoming an emergent phenomenon?

Emergence is a property arising (or emerging) from the interaction among fundamental entities, yet irreducible to these entities. The cathedral architecture of termite nests is an emergent property, arising from the termites’ unintentional work.

The symmetric pattern of a snowflake is an emergent property, arising from the nanoscopic interactions among an enormous amount of water molecules.

Our mind is an emergent phenomenon arising from the interactions between the neurons in our brain.

But if scientific work is really giving rise to emergence, where should we look for it? If we want to face this question beyond the dreams of science fiction, my bet is that we should look at the network of scientific records.

Arif Jinha has estimated that the number of scholarly papers published since the first modern journal was launched in 1665 crossed the 50-million threshold in 2009, with over 1.5 million new papers being added to this pool every year.

That counting, although breathtaking, underestimates the full extent of scientific records, neglecting all books, softwares, patents, monographs, manuals, theses, conference abstracts, and private reports contributing to the hard-core of science. Loosing the criteria a bit to include not only papers, but also abstracts and proceedings, the Web of Science indexed 90 million records produced between 1900 and 2014, with over a billion cited references.

And we are still strongly underestimating the human scientific record: think of all supplementary information files, research projects, slide presentations, posters, letters, e-mails, press releases, journalistic accounts, and blog posts sprouting everywhere; think of all unstructured and unpublished information collected in our computers, such as raw experimental data, drafted manuscripts, and software outputs.

Each of these conventional and unconventional scientific records are nodes in a vast network interacting via knowledge exchange: each one only exists thanks to a massive amount of preexisting information; each one will, on different levels, contribute to build the next generation of nodes.

We—scientists, students, teachers, technicians, bureaucrats, journalists—are the agents connecting the nodes. Transferring information between them, every time we use the knowledge from a set of nodes, to create new ones.

The number of scientific records, probably summing to few billions, may still not be very impressive if compared to the 100 billion neurons shaping a human brain or the 1019 water molecules sculpting a single snowflake. They are, though, much bigger than the several thousand termites working in a colony.

Is the network of scientific records already large, dynamic, and self-organized enough for the emergence of global-scale irreducible phenomena, to which we scientists are involuntary and unaware contributors?

Are we termites building a cathedral?

Or even more boldly: are we the neurons of a hyperconsciousness who knows well beyond we will ever dream?

And if so, can we talk to her?


Categories: Philosophy of Science, Science, Scientific Culture

Tags: , , , ,

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