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The Science of Science

By Ross Pomeroy

Science is an ever-growing tree. It was planted and grew as a sapling under the overarching title of philosophy, the study of general and fundamental problems, with great polymaths and thinkers like Ge Hong, Pythagoras, and Socrates providing the fertilizer.

Later on, as the tree of science sprouted, it formed branches like physics, chemistry, biology, math, and earth science. Since then, novel, more focused disciplines have grown out of those branches, with titles like geography, chronology, bacteriology, and psychology. All the while, the reaches of human knowledge expanded.

Amazingly, over the past decades, the branches on the tree of science began twisting around and joining together, creating a messy, yet beautiful jumble. Fields like neurophysics, biochemistry, biotechnology, and quantum chemistry are a few of the products of these mergers.

Ever curious, scientists are now trying to understand how new scientific disciplines emerge. In what is effectively a new arena in and of itself, researchers are pursuing the "science of science."

In a new paper published in Scientific Reports, a team of computer scientists primarily based out of the University of Indiana describes a new computer model to simulate the social dynamics of science. They engineered the model to try and approximate how scientists from numerous disciplines collaborate on publications and later create entirely new fields.

The model takes the form of a social network of collaborations whose nodes represent scholars. The scholars are linked to others with whom they've co-authored papers. Next to each scholar is a representation of the scientific fields they have been working on, and each discipline has a list of papers indicated by numbers. As described by the model's creators, "The social network starts with one scholar writing one paper in one discipline. The network then evolves as new scholars join, new papers are written, and new disciplines emerge over time."

 

 

The researchers validated their model by comparing its estimations with three large datasets from sites that track scientific publications, and found that it reproduced the patterns fairly accurately. Thus, the researchers say, the model provides evidence that "The birth and evolution of disciplines is thus guided mainly by the social interactions among scientists."

In other words, when scientists get together, cool stuff can, and often does, happen.

Source:  Xiaoling Sun, Jasleen Kaur, Staša Milojević, Alessandro Flammini, & Filippo Menczer (2013) "Social Dynamics of Science." Scientific Reports 3, Article number:1069 doi:10.1038/srep01069

Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor for Real Clear Science. Follow him on Twitter @SteRoPo.

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