Information in Instrumentation1.
C. le Pair
STW - Technology Foundation (The Netherlands)
History is a respected branch of learning, as is archaeology. However,
although both deal with the past, they approach it from different angles and,
thus, see different things. Unfortunately, the interaction between the two
disciplines is weak. One of the most famous historians of our time, Lynn White,
observed this phenomenon and won renown by integrating archaeological knowledge
of mediaeval artefacts with academic knowledge2.
Following White other historians rewrote parts of
the economic and political history of the Middle Ages. The picture that emerged
was quite different from the one that existed before. Not only did
the 'dark ages' become less dark, in some aspects they even seemed to be more
enlightened than the early Renaissance. It became apparent that, in these
so-called dark ages consistent use was made of ancient knowledge.
showed, for example, that mediaeval engineers had a fairly good knowledge of
the works and writings of their counterparts in ancient Rome. The scholarly
writers of the period, who are the main sources for students of history, were
not aware of this. The fate of Vitruvius' work illustrates this point. The ten books
on Architecture by this Roman engineer who lived at the
time of Emperor Augustus were 'rediscovered' in 1414 hy the humanist Poggio.
Renaissance scholars believed them to have been lost during the Middle Ages.
They were wrong, however, for 55 examples of the book still exist today, which
were copied between the 10th and 15th century. In other words, mediaeval
engineers knew and used Vitruvius' work, but their scholarly
contemporaries were unaware of its existence.
Some years ago a summer school was organised in The Netherlands on the
subject of the interaction of science and technology with national governments.
Among the lecturers were some of the most outstanding historians of
the country. They were fascinated by the topic. They admitted that,
with regard to this area there was a real gap in our historical
The role of technology in society had been greatly overlooked. One of the
participants suggested that this was an extension or rather a generalization of
the concept of C.P. Snow's 'two cultures'6. Examples were given of
some far-reaching historical descriptions, given by famous writers who had an
unprecedented influence on political thinking, but who had clearly not made a
proper assessment of the impact of technological
years before H. Mark8 had described how
the growth of Portuguese
maritime dominance in the 15th century had come about as a result of advanced
navigational and geographical technology, promoted and cherished by the
Similar developments could be traced in The Republic of the Netherlands but they seem
to have gone unnoticed by the chroniclers. There is evidence that the growth of
centralised power in Europe in the 15th century, eventually leading to the building
of the Habsburg empire under Charles V, and, ultimately, to the supremacy of
Spain, was rooted in the advanced state of weapon technology in the Low
Countries9. The starting capital came from
the same region: more than
one third of the imperial income came from the Low Countries. And, since that
was precisely the area that had hardly any natural resources, the strength was
based on manpower and skills, in short: on technology. At that time and in that
area there was but little emphasis on scholarly knowledge. This is illustrated
by the distribution of universities in Europe in that period, as shown in fig.
1: the north-western corner of European continent is quite empty.
Fig. 1. The distribution of universities and law schools in 15th century
Nevertheless, the Netherlands defeated
Spain and grew to be a world-power in the 17th century. In most traditional
history hooks we read that the Dutch defeated Spain and that subsequently the
arts and the sciences prospered. Only recently has it become clear that
one of the major causes of the Dutch success was their technological
leadership, which was revealed for example in their skill in building faster
and cheaper ships11.
2. INSTRUMENTATION IN SCIENCE
It is not only in
the humanities that the role of technology is neglected. Even in the natural
sciences there is a tendency to overlook the crucial role that technology and
instrumentation play in the development of our understanding of nature.
Mukerji12 also finds a persistent cultural
subordination of technology to science.
the theory, that scientific revolutions, the milestones in the development of
science, are marked by the downfall of a paradigm caused by internal crises.
His theory has itself been a paradigm for years. However, in a number of cases
the development of a new instrument has led to a break-through in science.
Casimir13 has pointed out that there is a continuous flow of development
from science to technology to science etc., which he calls the science-technology
from this viewpoint, the Copernican Revolution becomes a triumph of technology.
Price14 gives a very clear account of the developments at the time.
At the roots of the Revolution we find an improvement in the craft of making
eye-glasses. This technological innovation led to the invention of the
telescope. News of this reached Italy when Sacharias Janssen and Hans Lipperhey
from the Dutch town of Middelburg tried to sell their invention to the Medici
family for military purposes. They did not succeed commercially, but Galileo heard of the
device and was quick to replicate the invention. He was the first to turn the
instrument skywards and he published his results. His Siderius Nuncius of
1610 had a great impact and created tremendous enthusiasm for the instrument
among a large group of people. It was this, rather than the work of Copernicus,
which created the ‘Copernican Revolution’.
technological advance led to the invention of the microscope and the discoveries
made with it by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and others. This instrument and its successors
had a great impact on the development of science. David Cahan also stresses the
importance of the microscope and the improvements made in it around the
beginning of this century15. And these are by no means the only
examples of technological innovations opening up whole new fields of science.
Rabkin's16 outline of the history of chemistry shows
the importance of instruments in the
development of that discipline. Similar views on the role of instruments in the
history of other fields are expressed in several contributions in this
(e.g. Shaffer, Mukerji, Georghiou and, to a lesser extent Feeney).
Although there have been
periods during which instruments had greater social standing17,
those who initiate such innovations rarely receive proper recognition. Recently
some Nobel prizes have been awarded for technological achievements: e.g. to Van
der Meer at CERN for accelerator development, to Ruska for the invention of the
electron microscope and to Binnig & Rohre for their scanning tunneling microscope.
However, these exceptions are so rare that they do not
really indicate an increase in the appreciation of the influence of technology
on science, or of the influence of instruments on society in general.
During the last few decades, tight budgets have
caused policy-makers to look for more and more refined evaluation methods by
which to judge scientists and their work. In line with the historical picture
drawn above, these methods mainly concentrate on the paper outputs.
Unfortunately, not all those who apply bibliometric methods are aware of the
possible traps and pitfalls. The recent article in Science
and the ensuing flood of letters and comments provide a clear illustration of
the difticulties encountered in bibliometric analyses. In most evaluative
studies, the role of instruments as the output of research is ignored. For an
engineer, however, the instrument itself is often the primary 'publication' of
the results of his research.
Le Pair postulated the existence of a 'citation
gap' in such cases19. Subsequently, several studies have been undertaken
to estimate the size of that gap and the implications of its presence.
3. THE CASE OF THE ELECTRON MICROSCOPE
The work of the technologists who introduced
the study of the electron microscope in The Netherlands is known only to others
working in the field. The impact of their work has been tremendous, both
economically (here lie the roots of the ca. 70% market share which the Philips company
that utilised their results was able to achieve at a certain time) and
scientifically (research done with the instruments has led to important
discoveries in various fields). But, with today's emphasis on publication and
citation counts, these people are almost invisible.
We considered the electron microscope to
be a very suitable instrument on which to base a study of the citation gap
since it is directly comparable to a paper publication. The electron microscope
makes the results of research available to other scientists and it is used
primarily for further scientific research, i.e. knowledge is used to produce
more knowledge. In addition, much of the research work done with the instrument
is in fields where paper publications are the main output. An instrument does
not have a title page mentioning the authors, so it will not be found in the
list of references. However, it may be mentioned in the text; we counted these
references in a random sample of the literature in order to estimate the number
of 'invisible' citations.
S.L. van den Broek
A.C. van Dorsten
J.B. le Poole
Table 1. Citation counts for the main
'authors' of the electron microscope in The Netherlands for the period 1981 -
1985; comparison of normal citations taken from the Science Citation Index
(SCI) and textual citations of the instruments (Instr.), showing the citation
The results have been
published20 and they clearly
confirm the existence of a citation gap and they show its magnitude. Table 1
enables a comparison of the citation counts for the main 'authors' for the period
1981 to 1985, taken from the Science Citation Index (SCI), with the results of our study.
The SCI numbers refer to the entire work of these authors, whereas we,
in our literature search, considered only three instruments. Moreover, the
authors with the lowest instrumental counts were involved only with the
earliest instrument, developed in 1958. For these reasons our estimate must be
a conservative one. The actual citation gap is even larger.
4. THE CASE OF THE STORM-SURGE-BARRIER
Another case that
illustrates the lack of proper paper output for technology and the resulting
citation gap is that of the Storm-Surge Barrier in the Eastern Scheldt, the most innovative
Fig. 2. The Netherlands. Without dikes, the Western part, i.e. more than half
the country would be under water.
Brouwersdam; (B) Haringvliet Dam: (C) Volkerak Dam; (D) Hollandse IJssel Storm
Surge Barrier; (E)Zandkreek Dam; (F) Veerse Gat Dam; (G) Grevelingen Dam; (H) Eastern
Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier; (I) Philips Dam; (J) Oester Dam.
Fig. 3. The South-western corner of The
Netherlands with the estuary of three large European rivers (the Rhine, the
Maas, and the Scheldt), showing the location of the main waterworks constructed
to shorten the coastline.
part of the
impressive waterworks constructed in the southwestern part of The Netherlands;
figures 2 and 3 show the location. This project seemed of particular interest
because many different disciplines played a role in the design of the barrier,
ranging from civil and electrical engineering to ecology and marine biology.
We studied the bibliometric visibility of the
innovations21. To this end we conducted a number
of interviews with
people involved in the project, using snowball sampling to produce the list of
interviewees. Our spokesmen agreed readily about the innovations but were more
reluctant to attach names of 'authors'. A search in various literature
databases, including the Science Citation Index, confirmed our fears that the
technologists involved are almost invisible bibliometrically. Table 2 shows
some of the results of these searches. Evidently, there are some fields where
the situation is different. The authors with higher publication and citation
counts all work in more fundamental areas.
Huis in 't Veld
Table 2. Citation (1) and publication (2) counts
taken from the Science Citation Index. Publication counts taken
from the bibliographic databases INSPEC (3), COMPENDEX (4) and PASCAL (5), for
some of the contributors to the Storm-Surge Barrier in the Eastem Scheldt.
Names of principal contributors are underlined. We distinguished the following fields: pd = probabilistic design, co = coastal
engineering, sh = soil hydraulics, ci = civil engineering, pm = program
management, sm = soil mechanics, ee = electrical engineering, me = mechanical
engineering, mb = marine biology, ec = ecology, gt = geotextiles, he =
The reason for the bibliometric invisibility of the technologists
cannot be attributed to lack of written material, but is to be sought in the
nature of the documents. Numerous reports were produced in-house in many of the
organisations involved in the project. Although such reports are accessible,
they are not part of the open literature. Many publications are written in
Dutch, which severely limits the number of
potential readers. And last but not
least, many of the written documents we traced, did not even bear the names of
the authors. Here we come up against important cultural differences between
scientists and technologists.
5. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
technologists often work on the same subjects, but they do so in different
cultural domains. In technology credit and reward do not derive
from publications. Thus, there is very little inducement to write papers for
scientific joumals. There may be in-house reports, large numbers of them in
some cases. In one of the institutes which contributed its expertise in soil
research to the Eastern Scheldt project, we found a basement-room full of such
reports. Krige22 told us that at CERN they
keep about five metres of documentation on the development of one particular
then, have other communication patterns. Although much remains to be done,
several points have emerged from our interviews about the methods which
technologists use to assess their fellow researchers. Conferences play an
important role in the exchange of information. To be an invited speaker is
considered to be a sign of recognition as is an invitation to become a
member of an international professional association. And, of course,
to have taken part in a successful
innovative project is also considered to be an asset. This suggests that
sources other than paper publications must be used to evaluate technologists
and their work. In some fields, patents may be used. Or we can listen to technologists
talking about their work; if we do, we recognise other forms of
(citation-like) referencing; they refer to other
instruments and say "we built it like ..". Other sources of information
were suggested during the discussion: inventories of instruments (Rocher) and a
comparison of (references in) the curricula vitae of scientists and engineers
(Kruytbosch) might yield interesting results.
fashionable. We read about information management, information planning,
information systems, etc.; complaints are often heard about the flood of
information. Indeed, information plays such an overpowering role that it has
been suggested that our society should be called the information-society.
In all these
expressions, information consists of words and numbers, or is in computer
readable form, i.e. reduced to bits, to zeros and ones. However, everything we
see contains information, not only what we can read. The description of an
instrument, if the description is complete, contains the same information as
the instrument itself; both are representations of the same idea. Likewise, the
same infformation is to be found in a plant and in the DNA in one of its cells.
But, different skills are needed to extract the information. Reading is only
one such skill (to understand a scientific article, one needs more skills than
just reading; background knowledge is also essential). While studying a
subject, one automatically also acquires the skill needed to 'read' the
information as it is coded in that field. Thus, an engineer will learn to
'read' instruments. He will also some to consider an instrument the proper form
to publicize the results of his work.
Such communication channels deserve greater
appreciation. If we were to include them in our study of the history of
science, we would find a confirmation of Casimir's science-technology spiral
as well as of Price's theory that advances in instrumentation and experimental
techniques (what he calls instrumentalities) have been of major importance in
stimulating and permitting both radical theoretical advances in fundamental
science and radical innovations in practical application24. We
would thereby obtain a better understanding of the role played by technology in
the course of history.
Unfortunately, the increased use of
'science indicators' has led to renewed emphasis on written documents as
pointers to developments in science. As a result, other important evidence of
advances in knowledge is ignored. Instrumentation is an important source of
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Re-edited: Nieuwegein 2007 04 22.
(minor spelling corrections)