Source: The Atlantic, Apr 2018
… the basic means of communicating scientific results hasn’t changed for 400 years. Papers may be posted online, but they’re still text and pictures on a page.
The Watts-Strogatz paper described its key findings the way most papers do, with text, pictures, and mathematical symbols. And like most papers, these findings were still hard to swallow, despite the lucid prose. The hardest parts were the ones that described procedures or algorithms, because these required the reader to “play computer” in their head, as Victor put it, that is, to strain to maintain a fragile mental picture of what was happening with each step of the algorithm.
Victor’s redesign interleaved the explanatory text with little interactive diagrams that illustrated each step. In his version, you could see the algorithm at work on an example. You could even control it yourself.
the whole problem of scientific communication in a nutshell: Scientific results today are as often as not found with the help of computers. That’s because the ideas are complex, dynamic, hard to grab ahold of in your mind’s eye.
… to create an inflection point in the enterprise of science itself.
In the mid-1600s, Gottfried Leibniz devised a notation for integrals and derivatives (the familiar ∫ and dx/dt) that made difficult ideas in calculus almost mechanical. Leibniz developed the sense that a similar notation applied more broadly could create an “algebra of thought.” Since then, logicians and linguists have lusted after a universal language that would eliminate ambiguity and turn complex problem-solving of all kinds into a kind of calculus.
As practitioners in those fields become more literate with computation, Wolfram argues, they’ll vastly expand the range of what’s discoverable. The Mathematica notebook could be an accelerant for science because it could spawn a new kind of thinking.
To write a paper in a Mathematica notebook is to reveal your results and methods at the same time; the published paper and the work that begot it. Which shouldn’t just make it easier for readers to understand what you did—it should make it easier for them to replicate it (or not).
With millions of scientists worldwide producing incremental contributions, the only way to have those contributions add up to something significant is if others can reliably build on them. “That’s what having science presented as computational essays can achieve,” Wolfram said.
Pérez admired the way that Mathematica notebooks encouraged an exploratory style. “You would sketch something out—because that’s how you reason about a problem, that’s how you understand a problem.” Computational notebooks, he said, “bring that idea of live narrative out … You can think through the process, and you’re effectively using the computer, if you will, as a computational partner, and as a thinking partner.”
A federated effort, while more chaotic, might also be more robust—and the only way to win the trust of the scientific community.
It’ll be some time before computational notebooks replace PDFs in scientific journals, because that would mean changing the incentive structure of science itself. Until journals require scientists to submit notebooks, and until sharing your work and your data becomes the way to earn prestige, or funding, people will likely just keep doing what they’re doing.
When you improve the praxis of science, the dream is that you’ll improve its products, too. Leibniz’s notation, by making it easier to do calculus, expanded the space of what it was possible to think.