Bardeen, Gutenberg and the digital age

Two weeks ago I went back to Urbana, the place where I did my PhD, after 7 years of absence. It was good to be back, it felt like being at home. I met many new bright people, and people that I know and love for a long time. One of them is Celia Elliot who is the department’s keeper, at least when it comes to the spirit and the rich culture of Physics at Illinois. She showed me a box full of old strange stamps, like these:

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They are graphs from somebody’s paper, flipped backwards. The story was that Professor Gordon Baym had this box in the trunk of his car for years, and one day he decided that Celia should have it. The side of the box said ‘1940’. Armed with that clue, Celia found the paper that these figures belonged to:


In the picture above you see Figures 1 and 20 from Bardeen’s paper. The drawings were prepared by an artist, then etched into these plates, and used to print the journal pages – in a way similar to Gutenberg’s printing press. “How silly and hard was the life of a scientist back then” was my first thought. But wait a minute – are we now doing anything profoundly different from what Bardeen had to do 70 years ago? We are taking a picture of our data and sending it to a journal, where they put it into a .pdf file. So the .eps format replaced the etched plates, and paper is replaced with a computer screen.

But the data, live raw scientific data, is not a picture – it is a bunch of numbers. We have everything at our fingertips to start sharing the bits and bytes of our data, for our colleagues to fit, analyze, and play with. We just need to start doing it.

UPDATE: That was fast! The White House on the same day issued a directive that all federally funded research results and digital data must be available to public.