Wednesday, 16 May 2012

"So what's Information Science then?": Do people outside the department know what we do, and if not, does it matter? (by Simon Wakeling)

A couple of weeks ago I was booked to juggle at a small event in Sheffield, along with a couple of other jugglers whom I'd not met before. As I chatted to one of them before we started manipulating our balls, the following exchange occurred:

Him: So what do you do?
Me: I'm a student at Sheffield.
Him: Oh right, I'm a student at Sheffield too. What subject do you do?
Me: Well broadly speaking it's Information Science.
Him: Information Science? What's that then?
Me: [Some stuff about Information Science]
Him (looking suspicious / confused): Oh, OK. I'm a third year computer scientist.
Me: Ah well we're in the same building then.
Him: Really??

So here is someone who works in the same building as our department every day, in a related subject, but who has never heard of Information Science as a discipline, and has no idea what its students and researchers do. Is this representative of a wider lack of awareness and understanding of our discipline? I suspect it is.

Why then this ignorance? Is it a problem of terminology (Information Studies vs Information Science vs Informatics vs Library and Information Science vs Information Schools), or the lack of any such department in most UK universities (or for that matter the lack of an Information Science GCSE)? Is it the inter-disciplinary nature of our field, which defies simple summary? Does the often practical or vocational focus of our research and teaching dilute our standing in academia?

And whatever the reasons, should we be worried about it? Knowing broadly what a Mathematics department "is" hardly gives the non-mathematician any meaningful understanding of modern mathematical research. Similarly it seems unlikely that my juggling friend would have any keener appreciation of Chemoinfomatics for me having introduced him to the concept of Information Science. In a sense then general ignorance of the IS field is merely an annoyance, something that requires an extra sentence or two of explanation during small-talk. But is it also possible that this anecdotal evidence points to a more fundamental challenge for our field? It might perhaps imply that we need do a better job of unifying and presenting the disparate strands of our work within a grander (theoretical?) framework. It's either that or ask Bill Bryson to write a book about us...

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Creativity and research: Ideas don't follow timetables.

Liz's recent entry on work-life balance touched on the difficulties of fitting creative activities into the regular pattern of a working week.  It was a theme picked up in Angharad's comment.  Her observation that "casual conversations can also often provide key insights into particular research problems" is one of the reasons why the researchers' discussion group was started, and the freewheeling discussions (especially in the pub) can prove quite liberating.  Topics range from the obscure (eg, the offside rule in Subbuteo) to the surreal (in one discussion on the relative merits of search engines, it was suggested that the only way in which Bing is better than Google is that its name sounds better when read backwards).  Often though, chats in the pub, or in the informal brunches organized by Mark Hall, are the source of ideas for future discussion meetings.
Relaxed conversation is, of course, only one factor that leads to the generation of ideas.   A day dream is said to have played a part in August KekulĂ©'s comprehension of the structure of benzene: he claimed to have been inspired by the image of a snake eating its own tail.  
Most famous though, is the story of the original Eureka moment.  King Hieron (or Hiero) II of Syracuse commissioned a crown and provided the gold for it.  When it was delivered, he suspected the goldsmith of retaining some of the gold and replacing it with silver.  He had no idea how to confirm his suspicion, so he asked the resident court genius (Archimedes).  Archimedes also had no idea how to confirm the king's suspicion and took a bath to help de-stress.  As he climbed in, he noticed the water that spilled over the top of his over-full bath.  He realized that the volume of water displaced was equivalent to his own volume.  Appropriately used, a full tub of water could help to measure the volume of the suspect crown.  That, together with a measurement of the crown's weight, was sufficient to determine its density and thus its purity.

Archimedes was so excited by his realization that he leapt out of the bath and ran down the street yelling "Eureka" (or "I've found it").  Perhaps, therefore, if universities intstalled spas and hot tubs in their common rooms, they would have a similar effect and encourage creative streaks amongst the staff.