The Half-Life of Facts | Samuel Arbesman

Summary of: The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
By: Samuel Arbesman


Welcome to a captivating journey into the ever-changing world of knowledge as we explore Samuel Arbesman’s book, ‘The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date’. Through the lens of scientometrics, the science of science, you will discover how knowledge evolves, accumulates, and even expires. Be prepared to dive into fascinating realms like the half-life of facts, how our ever-increasing knowledge transforms the world around us, and how technology and the discovery of patterns in the development of knowledge have accelerated the growth of wisdom.

The Half-Life of Facts

As much as knowledge grows, it also gets replaced by newer concepts. The field of medical science is always evolving, making it necessary for doctors to keep learning and stay up-to-date with the latest developments. Scientometrics is the “science of science” that uses complex mathematical models to track changes in knowledge. Through scientometrics, it was discovered that knowledge has a half-life and in every academic field, half of the accepted facts will be replaced by new ones. For example, physics books need to be rewritten every 13 years while history books have to be revised every seven years. Scientometrics also reveals how quickly knowledge grows, with fields like chemistry doubling it every 35 years. The use of scientometrics to track the development of knowledge creates awareness on the need to stay open to new revisions and changes in the world.

The Power of Accumulated Knowledge

The accumulation of knowledge throughout human history has been a gradual process. Although our knowledge is not perfect, each new development brings us closer to the truth. With every new scientific discovery, massive breakthroughs occur, paving the way for new ways of thinking. The interconnection between different fields means that one small discovery can solve more significant problems in other areas. The growth of knowledge is like building a sandpile, where little advances from different areas eventually create an avalanche. By staying aware of the trend and being up-to-date with new developments in knowledge, we can take steps towards managing the rapidly changing world around us. This section will explore some of the significant influences that shape how knowledge changes.

The Acceleration of Technological Progress

Technological progress progresses at an exceptional pace, and this is due to the innovative spark that leads to more and more breakthroughs. This development follows the same pattern as scientific knowledge, and Moore’s Law tracks it. It states that the computing power of a single computer chip doubles every year, and a robot’s motion capabilities double every two years. Moreover, digitizing information and utilizing computer models have enabled the discovery of once-hidden knowledge and associations between genes and diseases. Co-Pub Discovery, a computer program, found an essential link between genes and Graves, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid gland. Inventions such as the particle accelerator have led to the discovery of new atomic substances in the same way that scientific discoveries result in technological advancements. The amazing pace of technological progress is due to continuous doubling upon doubling as technology evolves, leading to the creation of newer and better products even months after the latest invention.

The Importance of Measurements in Science

Measurements play a crucial role in scientific research by providing accurate information about the world. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, has been measured repeatedly, revealing that it changes in height due to erosion and continental plate collisions. However, even good science is susceptible to errors that can result in false ideas, which is why repeating experiments to reproduce results has become the scientific standard. This reciprocal relationship between measurements and science is evident in how science and technology advances have led to breakthroughs in our ability to measure accurately. For instance, scientists have redefined the meter using theories on light waves to provide a specific definition. Moreover, terms like “megabyte” and “gigabyte” emerged from advances in computer storage and reflect people’s ability to measure computer power. Overall, understanding the importance of measurements is crucial in ensuring accurate scientific information about the world.

Social Connections and Idea Development

The development of ideas is not based on population density, but rather on social connections between people. This is why so many universities and research laboratories are located in big cities. Even technology follows social connections. The fifteenth-century printing press followed the connections between thinkers living in certain German and Italian cities, while the isolated population of Tasmania missed out on many technological developments. Modern cities are larger than ever before due to improvements in technology. Improvements in medical knowledge, construction techniques, and sewage systems have all led to a larger, safer population.

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