Colloque L'écrit de la science/ Writing Science
Organised by the journal Alliage for The European Science & Technology Form of the European Commission (DG XII) Nice 12-14 March 1998
Published in French in Alliage N0. 37-38 Hiver 98 - Printemps 99. pp14-24.

Changing Presentations! Changing Science?

Joost G. Kircz
van der Waals-Zeeman Instituut, Valckenierstraat 65, 1018 XE Amsterdam
kircz @
Elsevier Science NL, PO Box 103, 1000 AC Amsterdam


In this presentation I aim to elaborate on the statement that the form of scientific communication is an important ingredient in the development of science itself. Entering a period of new - electronic- scientific communication channels it is timely to reconsider the existing culture as well as to try and develop a more visionary outlook for the future. Despite the great technical developments in electronic publishing I will only superficially deal with the actual state of the art. At the moment we see a huge operation in which all printed material is being converted to an electronic form. The first round of this operation proves already that the crucial classical problems of storage and logistics have been now essentially overcome. The problems shift from where to store information to where to find it. The development of digital libraries, distributed storage and global access to information are all well known. In this paper I prefer to develop a bold vision of the intrinsic novel avenues in scientific communication the electronic revolution might induce.

I will summarize those aspects of scientific communication that are crucial for science and their demands in terms of technology. I then will dwell on the first big bang in scientific communication: the revolution of moving type and the printing press. Subsequently I make a small detour in the direction of the various human mental perceptions and the possibilities integrating them into the communication process. I then touch upon the problem of metaphor in science as a vehicle of understanding. At the end, the claim that with a change of presentation science itself shall change will be emphasized.
For clarity, I intend to use the word 'digital' in the strictest sense as the opposition to the notion analog, whilst the words 'electronic' or 'binary' will be used for the bitwise, computer based, representation and storage of information.

Scientific Communication


In discussing the communication of science it is important to stress clearly those societal functions (authors' and readers' needs) in the communication process which are technology independent, and consider them apart from those which are technology driven (kir96). These societal functions change face with changing technology but they do not change character. Having said that, I immediately make the reservation that I speak about modern western culture and certainly not about societies where art and science are an anonymous, often communal, activity.
First of all, the originator or author needs to secure his/her intellectual ownership; this can find its expression in priority claims or signatures on the work, etc. With regards to this point it is interesting to note that it was the printing press, with its capacity of uniformal replication of works, that broke the seal of secrecy which hid away so many investigations from the general public (eam90). This aspect finds its expression in the registration function of the publishing process. It is closely related with the reward systems in science.
Secondly, we have the need for validation and certification. The receiver wants to be able to asses the work before consuming it. The (peer) review system and the brand names of scientific journals are the clearest expression thereof.
Thirdly, we have the awareness function; material has to be known. An important and often overlooked aspect is that awareness is not necessarily the listing or prompting of new articles. Awareness is the need for relevant information (of any time and kind) for the particular query at a certain moment in the research process.
Finally, we have the archival function which is closely related with the previous one and which deals with the storage, indexing, accessibility and retrievability of relevant material.
Discussing changing technology we have to relate all activities with the above mentioned functions.


We have to make a clear distinction between various forms of scientific information, as the different forms often fulfill different roles as well as touching on different kinds of information. At the most basic level we have the direct personal interaction between individuals. Teachers with their pupils strolling down Athens' streets, the school class in modern times, as well as, the colloquial discussion at the laboratory bench, at the coffee machine or in the pub. On this level speech communication and body language form an integrated whole. The context of the spoken word is given by gestures, speech tonality, the possibility of explanatory drawings, exemplary demonstrations, etc. Let us remind ourselves of Plato's famous warnings against the limitations of written speech in Socrates discussion with Phaedrus. Here we find strong arguments for the need of a proper interaction between interlocutors in order to obtain understanding. " Those who acquire it (writing) will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory" (275a). And: "...written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but when you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again (275d) (pla73, pp.96-97). Until now this type of information and knowledge exchange was only possible when the interlocutors were all together at the same place at the same time.
With the emergence of writing (together with an archiving and a postal system) it became possible to exchange information with others, independent of their location and independent of the time the receiving party consumes the message. It is not the place here to dwell at length on the fascinating story of the emerging of writing and the fundamental breakthrough the phonological alphabet meant for the possibility of unambiguous transfer of information in linguistic form (goo68). It is however crucial to stress that it was written language as transporter of scientific information which enabled us to exchange scientific information and knowledge, to accumulate it and to permanently recycle the same information and knowledge in an ever changing environment of scientific insights and outlooks.

The essential role of the printing press as an agent for the establishment of modern science is well described by Eisenstein (eis79). Following her we list some characteristics of this revolution, which we compare with the enrolling electronic breakthrough. A more elaborate discussion is given by Kircz (kir98).
i) The reusability of old works or parts thereof
i.i) The printing press quickly induced massive reprinting of old and, often in the strict scientific sense, obsolete works. It unified the widely scattered knowledge and data repositories of humankind. As Eisenstein clearly points out, this general availability of the human intellectual heritage was needed since the universal mastering and assimilation of all previous knowledge was necessary before it could be properly surpassed (p.516). This point is again clearly stressed by Eamon (eam94) in his book dealing with the dissemination of old books of secrets.
At the moment we are witnessing all kinds of works becoming available in electronic form. It indicates that in the electronic era, more than ever before, the availability of all previous scientific reporting, discussions and controversies, are available as permanent sources for referencing, inspiration and, where needed, dismissal. It also means that parts of old works can be easily integrated into new works. Hence, a new period of general information reevaluation can begin.
i.ii) The printing press introduced the development of dictionaries, indexes, bibliographies, compendia, catalogues, and reference works. In other words, the emergence of proper registration functions and systems. We see that history is repeating itself now; at present one of the largest activities on Internet is exactly this most elementary level of registration and indexing, as demonstrated by all the various Web crawlers, search engines and so forth.
ii) An enormous growth in the dissemination of identical information
ii.i) Next to the obvious role in advancing the education and general cultural level of society, printing also enhanced the integrity of the information as such; that is information deteriorated due to heavy use, damage or aging can be checked against other copies of the same edition.
The availability of many identical copies allowed serious scientific discourse and exchange of views based on exactly the same information. This aspect became an essential ingredient of scientific development (including the concepts of intellectual ownership and certification) and the development of concepts of integrity and truths. This can be exemplified, as Olson does, in Luther's fight against the idea that "statements required interpretation by either scribes or clerics". Luther stated that the meaning of scripture depended not upon the dogmas of the church, but upon a "deeper reading of the text". So text became a source of meaning in itself (ols77). As will be discussed below, we can now also circulate non-textual information and the question of integrity and meaning will only mount.
ii.ii) An important related aspect is the use of books for self-study overtaking the old master-apprentice relationship. Knowledge is no longer coupled to a person but is easily available for the independent student. In an electronic environment "interactive textbooks" will complete this historical line with courses adaptable to the various levels and needs of the reading and learning students and scientists.
iii) The emergence of standardization of presentation and judgement
In the context of the present article this point will not be dealt with. However, the fact that information can be distributed in identical form and independent of time and place forces strong needs for tools and methods to compare the various aspects of the material, hence drives to standardization.
iv) The development of typography
iv.i) The emergence of type fonts in all possible languages such as Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, etc. secured by this typographical fixity old and/or threatened knowledge. In a binary memory analog information can also be kept safe and secured.
iv.ii) Increasing familiarity with regularly numbered pages (in Arabic numbers), punctuation marks, section breaks, running heads, indices helped to order the thoughts of all readers, whatever their profession or craft. In the electronic era, new forms of document and file structuring are becoming essential "readers" aids.
v) New forms of data handling
Large-scale data-collections were subject to new forms of use. Here, of course, the printing press reached its highest peak with the development of ingenious and complicated tables, graphs, and fold-outs. The gigantic possibilities of binary representations will create completely new presentation capabilities and traditions.
vi) The possibility of error correction
The invention of errata allowed the continuing improvement of works in subsequent print runs. In an electronic environment up-date can be a dynamic process. This points to the notion that collectively working on one article in an electronic environment does not have to lead to one homogeneous text. Also an electronic document does not demand a local (group of) author(s). Using electronic networks, geographically separated authors can work together on the same article. This has to be arranged in such a way that each change or addition can be properly registered and assigned to a particular partner. Real integrated discussion can become the hallmark of a modular electronic article.

The result of the tremendous breakthrough of the printing press is that our scientific culture is completely based on written documents. Elsewhere I elaborated on the expected change of the form of the document in an electronic environment (kir98).

Text versus non-text

We now can pose the question whether written language is really the only way of scientific expression or do other possibilities exist as well? As mentioned above, in an oral society all kinds of bodily expressions augment and contextualize the spoken word. Obviously in an electronic environment we can mimic this situation with video and audio aids. The actual development of software already points in that direction. However my thesis here is that this is only a simple (although not technically trivial) step forward in which we try to reclaim the lost context the Plato school cherished. In order to go beyond this point we have to deal firstly with the problem of sensory perception and their mental representations and the capabilities of modern electronics to mimic, store and manipulate the various human sensory perceptions. Then we discuss the role of metaphors in the development of science.

Human perceptions

Let us start at the fundamental level, stating that all knowledge is based on sensory perceptions and the capability to communicate these sensory experiences to other humans. Following Dretske (dre81) it is illuminating to make a distinction between the analog form of sensory perception and the digital form of semantic, cognitive significance of information. An analog perception can be felt, experienced, etc. and can be transmitted to others only by having the second person experiencing the same sensation. Opposite to that the essence of digital information, being well defined cognitive content, is that it is an abstract linguistic notion which we can manipulate and transfer as a knowledge token. The essence of language is its abstract character that transposes the direct sensory sensations into well defined semantic notions. In that sense, linguistic utterances and writing enables the modelling of bodily experienced impressions. An interesting point is that in explaining phenomena of a certain kind we often use familiar descriptions of another kind. We "visualize" heat with a high level of mercury in a thermometer and cold with a low level. Different kinds of sensory perceptions, plains of experience, are constantly used as mutual comparisons and models.

The basis of human understanding of nature is its interaction with the surrounding. Despite our characteristic arrogance about the place of humankind in nature we have to accept that we are only a particular result of evolution with only a particular set of sensory capabilities. These limited sensory capabilities find their expression in mental representations which are the research field of cognitive psychology and cognitive sciences in general. In a penetrating series of essays Jackendorff (jac95) discusses the concept of modularity of the mind and mental representations. The importance of such an analytical approach is that we can begin to simulate in an electronic environment every faculty separately before we try and understand their mutual independencies and interplays. Jackendorff suggests the faculties of the mind, listed below, which he relates to conceptual structures, 3D models structures and body representations.
The conceptual structure is considered to be the expression of the language faculty and linked with the 3D model structure. The 3D model structure is considered the expression of the visual faculty and in its turn further linked to the body representation. In greater detail we have:

Within the body representation itself he counts the motor faculty ( muscles and joints movements), the haptic perception (perception of shape by touch) and the body position sense which is fed by such diverse sources as e.g. the visual system, auditory localization, touch and pressure sensors in the skin and the otolithic organs in the ear. Interestingly Jackendorff does not deal with smell, one of our most ephemeral senses that plays such an important role in human biology (ste98) and society (cla94).

The interesting question is how well we will be able to approach these faculties in an electronic "virtual reality" environment. If an author is able to simulate the various analog types of perceptions in electronic (binary) form, the reader of the transmitted message can compare his/her own experience of the same sensory experiences, with the interpretation of the originator. Although this might sound a bit far off, the reality of present day computing is already as far as so-called real audio and video via Internet and the simulation of haptic experiences in virtual reality test environments. So, electronic publishing seen this way extent the capability to preserve the integrity of completely different kinds of information over multiple copies independent of time and place.

Apart from the digital representation of the most obvious human perceptions; speech, written language and visual information, one can question what more can be represented, modelled, in digital form. A fascinating idea would be the development of virtual reality in simulating non-human perceptions. With all kind of tricks we are already able to represent e.g. vision in wavelengths areas that are outside the reach of the eye, or ultra-sonic sounds. But how would our scientific intuition develop if we could equip ourselves with different sensors such as gravity sensors, that are suggested to exist in plants, the magnetic memories of sea turtles (sea94), or even further away, with the electric senses? In the last case, as with the electric eel or the Nile catfish the echos of weak electric pulses discharged by the fish are used to determine the environment. The interesting point is, not only, that we have here another way of "viewing" the environment, which is very useful for all kind of applications, but that the vision of the world from such an electric point of view is very different. As an object is further away, the image gets broader and spreads out over the whole body of the fish: a kind of inverted focussing (wic96). This certainly must induce a very different world view.

The relevance of this detour in sensory perception in our discourse is that it shows that in nature there exists a manifold of different ways of interpreting the same physical reality, which certainly leads to different social behaviour. Our understanding of the world is an interplay between our analog sensory perceptions and our digital mental cognitive abstractions. The implicate now is, that with the knowledge of different sensory representation schemes, we can simulate them in an electronic publishing environment and can therewith expand the human outlooks on reality which after all is the basis for its desire to change the world. In that sense it is a further elaboration of McLuhan's credo Understanding media: The extension of man (mcl64).

Metaphors and communication

Every scientific theory is a model, a metaphor, for reality. Among philosophers of science the role of model, analog and metaphor is considered an important tool for communicating and understanding (the advancement of) human knowledge (for an overview of this discussion see lea74). Mary Hesse (hes65) especially started a more formal approach of the interaction view of the metaphor. In using metaphors, the ideas and implications from a primary system are transferred to a secondary one, therewith illuminating different aspects and suppressing others. In the interaction view both systems are influenced by the use of the metaphor and both reference systems assimilate in a certain sense. In the standard example of the sentence 'man is a wolf', men are seen to be more like wolves after the wolf metaphor is used, and wolves seem to be more human. (hes65, p.252).
An important aspect of the explanatory role of metaphor is that we can link known experiences in a familiar field of understanding with novel experiences under investigation. A new scientific phenomenon can be "pictured" in the framework of a commonly accepted model; like the planetary model of the atom in earliest period of modern atomic physics.
Following this type of reasoning, scientific theories can be considered as shifting plains of understanding on which physical reality is mapped. The important difference with Plato's cave is that we can have a multitude of projections, of a completely different nature. So the refinement of our understanding of physical reality is more a matter of integrating different mappings (in completely different environments, or co-ordinate systems) than a diligent following of a single deterministic line of reasoning. With the use of models and metaphors, we can envision scientific knowledge as an ever changing pattern of interacting projections of physical reality onto known cognitive structures of linguistic understanding.
An important aspect is that we first have to articulate the various sensory perceptions in order to be able to explicate these perceptions in linguistic form. A simple example is that in the period prior to the capability of mixing printed text and pictures, the text served as single medium of communication between disjoint interlocutors, taking great pains to describe e.g. visual phenomena. With the possibility of picture printing (blocks or plates) the "illustration to the text" becomes common, given back some analog perception (feeling) to the abstract (cognitive) linguistic description of the phenomenon. With the full capability of mixing text and pictures in electronic form we are reaching a situation where pictures can become primary information sources again, whilst text is added to explicate the pictures in the model or theory of the author. Especially in fields where the picture still hides unknown phenomena to be scientifically understood the primacy and integrity of the experimental data is kept whilst in the scientific arena competing theories fight for the best understanding of the data. That this an universal problem is illustrated by the article of Bogen and Woodward in which they emphasise the ontological status of phenomena and state: "it should be clear that we think of particular phenomena in the world as belonging to the natural world itself and not just to the way we talk about or conceptualize that order"(bog88, p321).

Let us now take the idea of the metaphor further into the electronic era. Not only are we becoming able to mimic most sensory perceptions, which after all is in itself not more then an enhancement of the integrity of transmitted and stored information. A more fascinating challenge is that we can work out theoretical, artificial, models to guide the mind into unknown areas. Already in computational physics we experience the possibility to make real-time simulations of model systems, which indeed provide us with unexpected new ideas and real novel physics. In computational mathematics we see that the whole idea of a mathematical proof gets a face lift, as some theorems can be proven by exhaustive computational evidence, without any formal logical equivalence. A familar example is the so-called four colour problem. This states that in any two dimensional (e.g. geographical) map, only four colours are needed to separate each domain unambigiously. It is obviously out my reach to forecast what serious simulations using the representation of all kinds of faculties, discussed in this paper, will reveal. The only firm conviction can be aired that changing representations will indeed induce completely novel science.


With the present state of the art of electronic publishing we can only see the shadows forecasting a complete overhaul of scientific communication. With the integration of analog information into the communications, analog information which will be the same for author (originator) and reader (consumer), scientific discourse will deepen and change. The basic cognitive question of how the mind creates knowledge, articulateing concepts linguistically, out of bodily experiences remains unsolved. As Ong eloquently said:"The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removedness from the living human life world, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into timeless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of readers" (ong82. p.81). The only thing we can do is to investigate further the various distinct sensory faculties and mental representations in order to make them explicitly interchangeable in scientific communication, as a first step to further understanding the world.

Coming back to the daily life of crummy operating systems and commercial Internet hype the following points have to be addressed in practice.

  1. A better understanding of the role of the document as prime transporter of mental models.
  2. The role of texts versus analog evidence and datasets. The difference between data and analog information is not discussed in this contribution, but deserves keen attention as data cover the whole range from just numbers to aggregated concepts.
  3. Investigations in the structuring of new mixtures of textual and non-textual information, its mutual relationships vis-a-vis the rhetorical and argumentative usage.
  4. The search for clear meta-data of non-textual information in order to make it retrievable and comparable with other information.
  5. The developing of testbeds for integrating different kinds of information, clustered around common characteristics. That is to say environments where not all the information is dumped into the reader's lap, but structuring in such a way that conceptually linked parts are presented together. Modularity of document structures is one aspect (kir98, har98).
  6. User interface studies of how people actually consume and use information.


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