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Shoulders of Giants

September 10, 2012

My high school physics course had a big affect on my scientific aspirations. Those were the days of PSSC Physics, so-called because it was developed by the Physical Sciences Study Committee in 1956.[1] I wrote about PSSC Physics in a 2006 article (Learning Physics, August 18, 2006).

The objective of this "New Physics" counterpart of the "New Math" was to bring science education into the space age. The PSSC Physics course went against the normal mode of having students memorize a lot of facts. It was an attempt to teach the concepts of physics. It was a great course for a novice physicist, but many of the other students did not fare as well.

I especially enjoyed the laboratory experiments, which used simple devices to teach fundamental concepts. One especially ingenious device, called a "ripple tank," used water waves to teach optics. One striking feature of the physics classroom was a giant portrait of Isaac Newton, captioned with the "standing on the shoulders of giants" quotation that's often attributed to him.

The quotation, taken from a 1676 letter of Newton to Robert Hooke, is "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants." We shouldn't be too surprised at seeing "shoulders" written as "sholders" in the same sentence as "ye." The phrase was apparently first used by Bernard of Chartres, and it's rendered in Latin as "...quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes..." ("...like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants").

The Titans by Gustave Dore

The original Giants

The Titans, as illustrated by Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883) in Dante's Inferno (Plate LXV: Canto XXXI).

(Via Wikimedia Commons))

In earlier articles (George Heilmeier and the DARPA Questions, March 13, 2012 and Full Genome Sequencing, June 7, 2012), I remarked how science depends critically on instrumentation. Today, it's just as likely that we're doing our standing on the top of our spectrometers. Without such devices to assist the experimental verification of theory, science would not advance.

The trend seems to be towards very large, very expensive instruments. Galileo's telescope and Robert Hooke's microscope were not that expensive in their manufacture, but the Large Hadron Collider cost $9 billion, and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope rings in at about the same amount. Of course, there's the recent counterexample of how household adhesive tape was an essential part of the discovery of graphene.

Technology has been the enabler of sequencing of DNA. What was first a laborious chemical problem has now been the topic of many innovations in electronics and nanotechnology. If we were to make a map of technology areas in which their location is based on their connectedness, the kingdom of DNA analysis is moving ever slightly away from chemical country towards the electronic realm.

Such a map was prepared by an interdisciplinary team that posted its results at http://www.interdisciplinaryscience.net,[2] as well as the arXiv preprint server.[3] The map is a snapshot of the relatedness of patented technologies, as indexed in the International Patent Classification (IPC), based on citations from 2000-2006. This result, as shown in the figure below, is based on more than 760,000 patents in 400 IPC categories. A spreadsheet of the classifications can be found here.[4]

Visual map of the interconnections of patented technologies

Visual map of the interconnections of patented technologies, from the arXiv Preprint Server, figure 1, ref. 3.[3] (Click for larger image)

A cursory look at this map shows three large areas. There are
materials to the right, chemicals and pharmaceuticals to the left, and computing/communication at the bottom. As the authors of this map write, such maps would reveal new relationships between disparate technologies.

I agree, but the fundamental problem is finding those outliers in such a mass of data. Now that a baseline is established, I think some simple computer code can give a month-to-month indicator of newly building relationships. The study included a snapshot of the patent portfolios of Samsung and Dupont, overlaid on this technology map.


  1. The AAPT Celebrates PSSC's 50th Birthday, Compadre Net.
  2. Luciano Kay, Nils Newman, Jan Youtie, Alan L. Porter and Ismael Rafols, "Patent Overlay Mapping: Visualizing Technological Distance," Interdisciplinaryscience.net.
  3. Luciano Kay, Nils Newman, Jan Youtie, Alan L. Porter and Ismael Rafols, "Patent Overlay Mapping: Visualizing Technological Distance," arXiv Preprint Server, August 21, 2012.
  4. Supplementary file 1 for Ref. 3, Excel file containing the labels of IPC groupings, citation and similarity matrices, factor analysis of IPC groupings, University of Sussex Web Site.

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Linked Keywords: High school; physics; science; scientific; PSSC Physics; Physical Sciences Study Committee; New Math; science education; space age; rote learning; novice; physicist; laboratory; experiment; ripple tank; optics; classroom; portrait; Isaac Newton; standing on the shoulders of giants; quotation; Robert Hooke; Bernard of Chartres; Latin; Titan; Gustave Doré; Dante's Inferno; Wikimedia Commons; George Heilmeier; DARPA Questions; Full Genome Sequencing; scientific instrument; instrumentation; spectrometer; theory; Galileo Galilei; telescope; Robert Hooke; microscope; Large Hadron Collider; Cost; $9 billion; NASA; James Webb Space Telescope; household adhesive tape; graphene; DNA sequencing; chemical; electronics; nanotechnology; technology; interconnectivity; connectedness; interdisciplinarity; interdisciplinary; arXiv preprint server; International Patent Classification; citation; patent; material; chemical; pharmaceutical; computing; communication; Samsung; Dupont.

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