Measuring the world

Recently, I read Daniel Kehlmann’s ficitonal history about Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, Die Vermessung der Welt. intriguing way to write history of science, because it enables the author to insert internal dialogues which are actually quite plausible, yet by definition unproveable. The two characters are quite different and perhaps symbolize the two basic modalities in quantitative research, recognizable also within the field of scientometrics. Alexander von Humboldt is the outgoing guy, travelling the whole world. He is interested in the particulars of objects, collects huge amounts of birds, stones, insects, plants and describes their characteristics¬†meticulously¬†. Gauss, on the other hand, wants to stay home and thinks about the mathematical properties of the universe. He is interested in the fundamentals of mathematical operations and suspects that they can shed light on the structure of reality. In scientometrics, these two different attitudes come together but never without a fight. Building indicators means thinking through both the mathematical properties of indicators, because this directly affects the question of what the indicator is actually supposed to measure. In technical terms, the validity of the indicator. One also needs other types of insight to understand the validity, such as about what researchers are actually doing in their day to day routines, but a firm grip on the mathematical structure of indicators is indispensable. At the same time, the other attitude is also required. Von Humboldt’s interest in statistical description gives insight into the range of phenomena that one can describe with a particular indicator. A good scientometric group, in other words, needs both people like Gauss and people like Von Humboldt. And indeed, both types are present at CWTS. Let us see how the interactions between them will stimulate new fundamental research in scientometrics and indicator building.

The book has also some interesting observations about the obsession of the key actors for measuring the world and the universe. When Alexander von Humboldt travels through South America, he meets a priest Father Zea, who is sceptical about his expedition. He suspects that space is actually created by the people trying to measure space. He mocks Von Humboldt and reminds him of the time "when the things were not yet used to being measured". in that past, three stones were not yet equal to three leaves and fifteen grams of earth were not yet the same weight as fifteen grams of peas. Interesting idea of the things that need to get used to being measured, especially now that we are tagging our natural and social environments increasingly with RFID tags, social networking sites and smart phone applications such as Layar which adds a virtual reality layer of information to your current location. Later in the book, Gauss adds to this by pondering that his work in surveying (which he did for the money) did not only measure the land, but created a new reality by this act of measuring. Before, there had been only trees, moss, stones, and grass. After his work, a network of lines, angles, and numbers had been added to this. Gauss wondered whether Von Humboldt would be able to understand this.