Missing Figures in Science: The Synthesizer

clerke_craterOpen call: university department is looking for a synthesizer, to peruse literature and write technical reviews.

1. A Woman on the Moon

Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907) was an astronomer in the late Victorian era. She wrote some influential books, as the impressive¬†“The System of the Stars” in 1890, which I already mentioned in another post.

In a harsh time to be a woman in science, she conquered her way up to become member of the British Astronomical Association and honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. A crater on the moon was even named after her.

But Agnes never really sat at a telescope, making boring measurements and taking notes night after night. Neither did she spend weeks solving classical equations for planetary motion or thermodynamics of stars. She didn’t supervise grad students or taught at the university either.

She never did any of these standard activities we expect from an academic scientist. Nevertheless, she was still quite influential among British astronomers in her time. She played a role that has never been officially recognized in science: she was a synthesizer.

Agnes work was to read every single article and book on astronomy, evaluating their relevance and putting their information in the context of their current astronomical knowledge. This synthesis was then published in her books, which became so important that astronomers started to send their new findings directly to her, in hope of getting them surveyed in the next editions.

I can’t remember any other scientist working like this. Sure, we have had amazing people dedicated to high-level science popularization—from Carl Sagan to Ilya Prigogine, from the young Richard Dawkins to Sean Carroll. Following a tradition started by Voltaire, these great thinkers organized and synthesized the state of science in their times. But they all aimed at the general public, chewing their thoughts till all technicalities (and specially the mathematics) dissolved into a digestible amalgam.

That’s not Agnes’ case: she also did popularization, but a book like the System of the Stars was aimed at professionals. The hard-core tables and graphs are there in the text; her discussion is technical. It’s more like a modern scientific review, as those published in the Chemical Reviews or in the Reviews of Modern Physics.

The difference is that Agnes would have never been allowed to publish in any of those journals.

Technical reviews are written by established researchers. They are well-known scientists in their fields and usually they are invited by a journal editor to write on their research topic. Agnes wasn’t an established researcher. I told you, she never sat at a telescope or solved any equations. How would she dare write a review?

2. The Missing Figure

Science has evolved into an awfully disorganized enterprise. Many important roles are not recognized as requiring professional expertise and are played in an amateur way. The synthesizer is one of them. I’d love to count on people specialized in reading papers in my field. People whose academic expertise would be to scrutinize every paper appearing, for instance, in photochemistry, and putting them into context of the current photochemical knowledge; writing synthesis and constantly updating the current state of the field.

Naturally, a conventional researcher may write reviews. They do it all the time (I did it myself). But they write reviews at the cost of their research time. As their scholastic knowledge is built as a consequence of their research activity, not as a goal on itself, the result is that reviews are usually biased towards the author’s own results and expertise. They lack erudition and perspective.

When it comes to writing reviews, established scientists are simply amateurs. Just to give an example, in a recent review published in the Chemical Reviews (the most important journal dedicated to reviews in chemistry), 22% of the references were self-citations. I deeply doubt that there is any field in science where a single author is responsible for almost one-quarter of all relevant results.

Certainly, we can find outstanding works synthesizing the state-of-the-art of specific fields. I look at my specialty and I find the four volumes of Gerhard Herzberg’s “Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure” in the 1950s. These are stupendous books that shaped generations of scientists.

I don’t think I’m too pessimistic if I claim that we won’t find such deep-breath works in the future anymore. How could we—pinned down to the lab floor working on hyper-specialized topics—find time to survey the massive contemporary scientific production? Volume I of Molecular Spectra cites 1574 works published along three decades. Search for “molecular structure spectroscopy” in Google Scholar, and it will return over ten times this number published only in 2016.

If we still want high-quality syntheses, we should recognize the synthesizer as a professional role on itself. People whose mission is to exclusively learn about a certain research field. Aided by tools from big data mining and artificial intelligence, they should go through thousands of papers published in their field every year and deliver general synthesis.

Counting on such qualified reviews written by professional synthesizers would improve productivity and strengthen science. It would provide an entry door for young people moving into specialized fields. It would create standard benchmarks against which scientists could compare their own findings. It would save time different scientists waste repeatedly perusing the same papers. It would help to re-build a feeling of unity that science has lost.

Unfortunately, I can’t realistically imagine any university opening a call—like in the heading of this post—to hire a synthesizer. It’s one more figure science will go on missing without knowing.


Categories: Science Policy

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