Leaping Concepts and Global Discovery
Much of what OSTI does is aimed at accelerating communication within scientific communities. But there is another vitally important kind of scientific communication that we are also facilitating, which I call "leaping concepts." Leaping concepts refers to the case where an important concept suddenly leaps from one community to another. Leaping concepts are often transformational. Finding these vital concepts, so they can leap, is what we mean by "global discovery."
Global discovery is about a scientist in one community finding an important concept in another community. It requires that all of science be searched at once, not just individual communities. This is a great challenge because different communities speak different languages. The Scientific and Technical Information community, including OSTI, is exploring various new tools to assist users in searching distant communities.
Some of the most dramatic episodes in science have occurred when a concept suddenly leaped from one community to another community. Perhaps the most spectacular was the advent of quantum science, around the turn of the 20th Century, which involved two great leaps.
It started when Max Planck was working on a relatively obscure problem in the science of heat. In 1899 he proposed the radical view that heat energy was not continuous, that is occurring in all amounts no matter how small. Instead Planck proposed that heat came only in tiny lumps, which he called "quanta." A single lump of heat was a quantum of energy. In 1905 Einstein extended this idea to light energy, so the concept of the quantum leaped from the heat community to the light community. Then in 1913 the quantum leaped again, when Bohr used it to explain the stability of the atom, creating modern atomic science. As a result of these leaps quantum theory became a universal pillar of physics.
This breathtaking series of concept leaps has been repeated at smaller scales many, many times in science. Where a concept is most useful is often not where it originates. In part this is true because of the universality of mathematics. The distinction between continuous energy and quantum energy is really a mathematical concept. Because all scientists use the same math, a concept developed in one community may be most useful somewhere else, somewhere far away scientifically.
The point is that scientists need efficient access to new concepts being developed throughout science, not merely within their own communities. This is where OSTI comes in. OSTI strives to provide DOE scientists with efficient access to all of science, not just the science DOE happens to be working on. Even the least likely candidates, which DOE may have no scientific interest in, need to be included.
A recent example helps make the case, that of forest management. DOE has no mission interest in forest management and it is unlikely that many DOE researchers read forest management journals, especially not the nuclear physicists. Nuclear physics and forest management are about as far apart scientifically as one can get.
But the forest management community recently produced a study showing that a common technique used in Monte Carlo analysis did not work under certain important conditions. Nuclear scientists, many of whom are funded by DOE, use Monte Carlo analysis extensively. In fact Monte Carlo analysis was developed by the Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed and maintains several Monte Carlo computer codes. So it turns out that a discovery made in the forest management community may be of great use in the nuclear physics community. This is a leaping concept.
The fact that leaping concepts are often vitally important, sometimes even transformational, means that every scientific community needs a way to look beyond itself. Every community in science needs access to all of the other communities. This is where OSTI's nested suite of cross cutting products comes in -- ScienceAccelerator.gov, Science.gov and WorldWideScience.org. Each provides a progressively more global search capability. However, as important as the products are, they only provide access to a small fraction of the potentially available scientific content. There is much work still to be done to make global discovery a reality.
OSTI's goal of facilitating leaping concepts means providing efficient search capability across all of the science communities, for use by every community. Global discovery is scientifically global, not just geographically global, although the two are related. Global discovery is vital because one never knows where the next breakthrough concept might be found.
Dr. David Wojick is senior consultant for innovation at OSTI.