Isaac Asimov on Searching for Information

In my earlier post, “Books: The Ancient and Ultimate Document Viewer?”, I had commented on Isaac Asimov’s belief that that’s what physical books are, and I had pointed out some important deficiencies of them. One of them is searchability. But IA himself had written on this problem.

n 1955, he wrote “The Sound of Panting” (in “Only a Trillion”). The panting that he described was for him as he tried to keep up with the biochemistry literature.

In 1964, he wrote Asimov Suggests Science of Data | News | The Harvard Crimson

Science’s rapid accumulation of data, Asimov said, has created the need for a new branch of science, information retrieval. The new field, he said, should attempt to make the data scientists need available to them simply “by pushing the right button.”

Regaling his audience with a Jackie Masonesque style, Asimov then launched into a lengthy example of how Mendel’s theories of heredity were overlooked for a generation, the delay producing misconceptions that may ultimately have led to two world wars.

He also wrote about that in one of his science essays.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) became a monk because it helped pay for his education. He entered St Thomas’s Abbey in Brünn, Austria, now Brno, Czechia, and he started research on heredity there. He first wanted to crossbreed mice, but the abbot there didn’t like researching animal sex. So he crossbred plants instead, and from crossbreeding pea plants, he discovered his famous laws of heredity. In 1865, presented his findings in two meetings of a local natural-history society, but it did not get much of a response. In 1866, he published his work in the “Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn”, but it did not get much notice either. He had a correspondence with eminent Swiss biologist Carl Nägeli over 1866 – 1873, but CN did not mention GM’s work in any of his books, even where he discussed heredity. CN was very good at observation, but his theories were another story. He believed in orthogenesis, the theory that evolution is driven by internal mechanisms, like what CN called an “inner perfecting principle”.

Some decades later, four biologists rediscovered GM’s laws of heredity and published on them almost simultaneously. Dutch Hugo de Vries, German Carl Correns, and Austrian Erich von Tschermak in 1900, and American William Jasper Spillman in 1901. The first two also acknowledged GM’s priority.

Since then, what IA had proposed has now become commonplace, with computerized search systems ranging from in-app searching to Internet-wide searching. Not surprisingly, there are search engines that cater to scientists, like PubMed and Google Scholar. Preprint archives like arxiv are also searchable, as are scientific-journal sites.


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