Monday, August 16, 2010


Ahh summer – those long lazy days on holiday by the sea…with the peace… and quiet.. and… well boredom, which can be relieved by finding a good read in the local library. Now call me weird, but when I drop into the library in those sleepy far off towns I usually pass by the physics shelf in the science section for a bit of a squiz. The shelf’s contents are almost always desultory and mercifully I’m usually forced to pass those long afternoons with some pulp fiction.

In contrast, imagine my excitement to discover how absolutely well stocked with fabulous physics books is the DESY library. And those long shelves full of (actually not) dusty old journals like Soviet Physics JETP (journal of experimental and theoretical physics). Now to come across even such a journal title, as I did when I was an undergraduate in the still cold war world of the 80’s, was exciting enough. It seemed like a little bit of a communist 5th column in our bourgeois decadent science library. And that journal is jammed pack full of very intelligent theoretical work – no doubt drummed out of proletarian scientists as they were forced to think away in some Siberian institute that was bound to be a state secret.

I based a lot of my research on papers from that journal – in the 80’s it felt like I was the only person in the West who even knew of their existence! Not true of course. They had obviously been translated into english quite sometime before and I was being naieve – but its nice to daydream sometimes. In any case during the process of my research I ran into a mathematical problem (see my previous blog entry) and I found, tucked away in a little corner of one of those JETP papers, a delicious reference to a soviet maths book – that hadn’t been translated and in fact wasn’t in our library’s catalogue. Or indeed in any library catalogue in the country. Eventually my brave inter-library loans librarian established that it could be obtained from the Leningrad library itself!

Obtained? Obtained!?? Would such a thing be possible? Even if the Apparatchiks allowed it out of the country, could it make it past the Iron Curtain? Even then, wouldn’t some US blockade (like the one around Cuba) stop my precious Leningrad maths book in its tracks? Somehow my intrepid book found its way into my eager hands some satisfyingly long 6 weeks later. And it was satisfyingly jammed pack full of mathematical identities, none of which, sadly, helped me to solve my maths problem. So I sent my brave little book back from whence it came.

To its doom. Horrifyingly, just a few months later the Leningrad National Academy of Sciences library burnt to the ground – destroying some 400,000 precious books and damaging millions of others. As this was really before the whole OCR, electronic library thing, perhaps many were lost forever – a veritable chernobyl of the soviet library world. The only thin silver lining was that it wasn’t the gorgeous Kunstkammer – built by Peter the Great to house the science collection and the original home of the Science Library – that was destroyed, but a faceless brown cubish building, which cant have been as nice to work in in any case.

These days the internet has brought us the means to better preserve our collective science knowledge. Many physics text books are now available online and the academic papers likewise – though more work needs to be done to digitize the older papers in journals like the JETP. And its still the case that this information has to be made free. I mean it not now in an iron curtain sense but a financial one. Subscription rates to academic journals are prohibitively high meaning that you have to be an employee of a large university or laboratory to get access to it. The international science community however thrives on the free exchange of information and to that end set up the freely accessible preprint server ArXiv. Here you will find academic papers in electronic form before they get locked away in the journals. There are high hopes for ArXiv

“Its existence was one of the precipitating factors that led to the current revolution in scientific publishing, known as the open access movement, with the possibility of the eventual disappearance of traditional scientific journals.”

One advantage of the journals are that the work that appears in them is peer (or if you like) quality reviewed. However mechanisms exist for the endorsement of ArXiv material – in general the quality of the work is very high, and its a great resource.

To finish with an adage then, information wants to be free and Science thrives on openness, cooperativeness and the absence of a profit motive!

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