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1/2 idea No. 21: Journal/disciplinary genealogical map

By Jon Agar, on 2 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

We’ve all seen family trees, whether they be ones linking grandparents to grandchildren, or the various ways, especially after Darwin, the relationships between organisms have been pictured.

Scientific disciplines and specialties have something of a genealogical structure. Chemistry begets organic chemistry. Physics begets nuclear physics. Of course the topology of the genealogy of disciplines is not a simple tree. There are mergers of branches, for example, such as astrophysics or molecular biology. Furthermore, before roughly 1800, the map of knowledge looked radically different, with major divisions of natural philosophy and natural history as Diderot and d’Alembert’s famous  Système figuré des Connaissances humaines from the Prospectus de l’Encyclopédie (1750) illustrates well. Foucault, Kuhn, and others, told us there were discontinuities or breaks. But modern science dates from the replacement of natural philosophy and is marked by the continuity, as institutions, of modern scientific disciplines.

The development of modern science can therefore be represented in something like a stable image.

Raphaël Sandoz’s wonderful resource, the Interactive Historical Atlas of the Disciplines, collects together many attempts to visualise the relations between the branches of science. Many are tree-like, but others are rings, spheres, triangles, flow-charts, and other shapes. Each was a medium for a message about how disciplinary knowledge does or should connect.

My simple thought is that the names and duration of existence of journals should provide the data for generating an image.

The Annalen der Physik has been published, albeit under a variety of names, and including relaunches, from 1790 to the present. As more physics journals appeared so the branch can be thickened. As specialties are defined, so new branches appear and are added to the picture. The process is repeated for all journals. But how are they found?

In the nineteenth century the Royal Society, faced by the alarming Babel-like proliferation of scientific papers and journals, each with its own specialist terminologies, sought to rein in the chaos by (near) complete bibliographic listing, resulting in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, 180063, volume I (1867). The project continued into the 20th century, when, as Hannah Gay has shown, it overwhelmed the hundreds compiling it. Nevertheless, such compilations, as well as 20th-century scientometrics, can be scraped for the data.

I’ve seen maps of science now – pretty constellations of clustered coloured dots. But I have not seen an attempt to give such automated pictures of science a dimension of time.

I’m sure it can be done. And I am curious to see what the result looks like. I don’t have the coding skills to do it myself.

I’ve sketched what I think they might, roughly, look like.



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