Wednesday, December 1, 2010


A recent segment of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" focused on information overload--the ceaseless deluge of content that has been produced by the growth of the world wide web, 24-hour news broadcasts, and more recent "innovations" such as Twitter. But Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard, asserts that this sense of overload is not a new phenomenon.

I know of two examples that support Blair's argument. In an 1894 address to the Chemical Society of London, organic chemist H.E. Armstrong observed: “…chemical literature is fast becoming unmanageable and uncontrollable from its very vastness. Not only is the number of papers increasing from year to year, but new journals are constantly being established. Something must be done in order to assist chemists to remain in touch with their subject and to retain their hold on the literature generally.” (1) Such anxious observations were not new even in the late 19th century. Many years earlier, in 1807, scientist Thomas Young declared: “When we contemplate the astonishing magnitude [of the literature] in any department of science…there is the greatest reason to apprehend that, from the continual multiplication of new essays which are merely repetitions of others that have been forgotten, the sciences will shortly be overwhelmed by their own unwieldy bulk.”

(1) A.J. Meadows. Communication in Science (London: Butterworths, 1974). In Brian Vickery, “A Century of Scientific and Technical Information,” Journal of Documentation 55 (December 1999): 476-527, 476. H.E. Armstrong was an English organic chemist who challenged Arrhenius's ionic theory. He proposed an alternate theory in which water is a complex saturated with the gas "hydrone."

(2) T. Young. Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (London: J. Johnson, 1807), in Vickery, 476.

Thomas Young (1773-1829) was appointed professor professor of physics at the Royal Institution in 1801. In two years, he delivered 91 lectures. These lectures, printed in 1807 under the title Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy, are noteworthy on account of their anticipations of subsequent theories.

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