Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for March, 2012

The “demise” of scientific journals

I’m sitting here, working on a feature article that required me to do a lot of research in scientific journals going way-back-when. And I notice that one of the articles I’m citing, from an issue of Nature back in December 1970, is followed on the same page by another essay titled “Demise of Scientific Journals.”

Now, I don’t have the full journal-related essay, because I didn’t think to download the whole thing while I was at the library, and my in-home access to Nature doesn’t let me go back that far. Still, I am intrigued.

The “Demise” article is not credited to an author by name, just to “our Washington Correspondent.” He (I’m assuming the correspondent was a “he” — this was in 1970, after all) quotes a then-recent study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The NAS committee predicted that “journals will eventually be rendered obsolete by the computer console, although it may take ten years before each major research centre in the United States possesses a suitable terminal, a further decade for small groups of scientists to come to own consoles and yet another ten years to provide links with other continents.”

Hmm, let’s think about that. This article was written about 18 months after humans first landed on the Moon. I’m sure that people back then were still making pretty optimistic projections about Moon bases and Mars expeditions.

Ten years after the NAS committee … that would be 1980, and mainframe terminals (think VAX) were in colleges and universities, I’m sure. However, students still typed up their term papers on typewriters and went to the library to make photocopies of journal articles.

Ten years after that … takes us to 1990, and scientists certainly had their own personal computers on their desks at work, and probably at home too. Or they might have had Sun Microsystems workstations that were networked together. There was even a way to send “electronic mail” or “e-mail” messages to colleagues at other institutions, although the protocols for getting messages from one computer network to another could be cumbersome. (Quite a few pages in the 1993 membership directory of the American Astronomical Society were devoted to translating addresses to and from ARPAnet, Bitnet, JANET, NSFnet, SSL, etc.)

Ten years after that … by 2000, communications “with other continents” was definitely old hat!

And scientific journals still exist. I think there are more of them than ever before. If you’re already a journal publisher, it’s easy to start a “virtual journal” that’s online-only and/or aggregates articles from related journals in the field. Scientists all over the world are publishing up a storm, and the “information superhighway” gets bigger every year.

So … Nature‘s prediction turned out to be way too conservative. However, while we were advancing the computing and communications technologies much faster than anticipated, we didn’t get around to building those Moon bases and exploring Mars. What happened there?

A couple of “not quite…” moments

First off, let me apologize for not posting interesting thoughts to this blog as soon as they pop into my mind (or as soon as I read them elsewhere on the Internet). Recently I just finished one feature-length article for Optics & Photonics News (OPN), and I have a second one due in less than two weeks.  Plus, I’m working on a shorter article and some other projects. You can always follow my Twitter feed or “Like” my Facebook page.

Anyhow, here’s what I’ve been reading….

First off, a couple of Fridays ago (March 9, to be exact), the Washington Post had a front-page story screaming, “Affordability award goes to a $50 light bulb” (or “Government-subsidized green light bulb carries costly price tag” on the Web version). Apparently, the winner of the U.S. Energy Department’s “L Prize” award for innovation in energy-efficient lighting is a lamp that costs $50 per bulb. Since practically all of us American adults have grown up in the era of ultra-cheap incandescent bulbs, that seems almost prohibitively expensive, doesn’t it? Especially since the story was accompanied by an infographic that claimed that it would be cheaper for a household to buy 30 inefficient incandescent bulbs (which generate more heat than light) over 10 years than to buy just one of the super-efficient prize-winning lamps.

As my high school chemistry teacher used to say, “Yah, but….” As it turned out, the original infographic had gotten the math wrong. As it turns out, if you stuck with incandescents for your favorite lamp, over the next decade it would cost you $228 — $30 for 30 bulbs and $198 for 1,800 kWh of electricity. However, you could spend the next decade using the $50 bulb in your lamp and expend only 300 kWh of electricity, for a grand total of $83.

Hat tip to the Media Matters for America blog for pointing out the change in the infographic, as well as straightening out the often-distorted reporting about the coming changes in our light-generating technologies. I’m really getting sick and tired of hearing politicians tag President Obama with the alleged “light-bulb ban” when his predecessor, President George W. Bush, was the guy who actually signed the relevant legislation. If it didn’t happen during the Bush administration, then how come I wrote about it back then?

However … At least the Post‘s “Fact Checker” blogger got things right when he pointed out that Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney attributed the “ban” on incandescent bulbs to “Obama’s regulators.” The blog gave Romney three Pinocchios (out of four), meaning “(s)ignificant factual error and/or obvious contradictions,” for that one.

Remember, folks, incandescent bulbs aren’t going to be “banned” — they’re just going to be held to a much higher energy-efficiency standard, and if they can’t cut the mustard, well, so be it. That’s “not quite” a ban.

Another GLOBE at Night observing period starts soon

GLOBE at Night, a worldwide effort to measure light pollution in the night sky, starts another observing period tomorrow night (March 13).

Participating in GLOBE at Night couldn’t be simpler. Just find one of three constellations an hour or so after local sunset. (I’ll probably pick Orion, but you could also look for Leo or Crux, depending on your location.) Match what you see of that constellation to the pictures that show how the constellation is affected by varying levels of light pollution. Then report your findings to the GLOBE at Night program. (Be sure to report your location too — that is, your latitude and longitude.)

For people equipped with smartphones and tablets, GLOBE at Night provides apps in English, Spanish, German and Polish. You can also download “teacher activity packets” and “family activity packets” in nine additional languages.

This observing session runs through March 22. The final session will be open April 11-20.

Clear skies!