The Redundant Scientometrician

Within a library’s soaring atrium, beneath its latticed skylight roof and the crown lace of a sycamore, young scholars lay supine in its dappled, purple shade, careful not to bother the familiar presence of an elderly woman, who perched on a tall ladder, stood with her small hands cupped around one of the sycamore’s innumerable twigs. And so it was a violation of rules when a young man, undeterred by the silence, shouted to the woman from the ground:

“Excuse me, Ma’am, but could you please point me towards the Department of Scientometrics?”

Rare as these interruptions were, it immediately brought to her mind memories from that other time, some two decades less than a lifetime ago, when another man had approached her at this very site. There was no tree here back then, only an unshaded bed of greenery, where she, one day, had sat and examined the flora, when the cast shadow of a hunched old man emerged from behind, and a voice asked her, timidly:

“Excuse me, Miss, but could you please tell me what it is that you study?”

“I study arborsculpture, sir – the art of tree shaping.”

“I was hoping you were.” the man said.

“Why so?”

“I have for many months now been looking for a young set of green fingers – coupled to a pair of ears that are unflinching to lofty ideals, and eyes that won’t tire, even when that idealism inevitably wears off.”

He sat down beside her. “I hope you won’t mind me disburdening myself a little bit. I happen to be the manager of this library, and, as is customary I suppose – now with my time here on Earth running out – I have lately begun to doubt the causes I have been committed to, the fruition of my labors, and ponder the possibility, that maybe, after all, my life has been an utter mis-investment. You see, I was the one who seeded this collection, who – as libraries began to sprout up across our country – ensured the unrestricted influx of literature, and saw it swell to its present proportions. At the time, I rejoiced at the inundation as if it were a cool rush of spring water, but today, as I walk around the library, what wells over me is instead a feeling of glut, surfeit and almost disgust.”

They both looked around. It was true that the library bore all the evidence of an ill-planned growth spurt, with aisle after aisle lined with motley-wooden bookcases stacked on top of each other, climbing towards the ceiling, overflowing with scrolls and papyri, folios and manuscripts. Here was represented every topic imaginable, and for every topic, many dozens of sumptuously illuminated volumes wearing grandiose titles, of –logies and –nomies and –graphies and all manner of suffices. And finally, on top, a uniform layer of dust, indicating that, for all the exalted thoughts and theories contained inside, this library was their dead end.

“So much knowledge”, he said “to so little avail. A repository of potential destined to forever remain just that – potential! Some nights I walk around the library by myself, when the moonlight reflects in its gilded details, and I imagine a wind swooping through it, freeing the ideas from their book-bound captivity. I imagine them as glowing globules that would rise from their shelves and congregate towards the atrium, where ideas equivalent to each other would fuse, and as the globules grew in size, they would swirl into the form of a spiral nebula, like by a centripetal force, and, ultimately, join together in a single great entity.” He smiled shyly. “And from this, every fact in this library could then be derived, first by discipline, then by subject, then by topic, quite like how a how a tree branches out, multiplicity sprung out of unity.”

“You want me”, the woman asked, “to represent your library’s collection as a physical tree?”

“It would work”, he hurried, “like a map. Presented with the tree, the scholar would no longer feel bogged down in a sea of unstructured knowledge, but immediately get a sense of overview and navigability, of progress and direction, with the ability to telescope back and forth, between the abstract and the granular. Instead of repeated reinvention, every idea would be original, and as surely as leaves align themselves in the canopy to claim their share of the sunlight, every unfinished idea would find itself a human mind to feed on.”

He turned toward her.

“It’s not a small favor that I am asking of you. What I am requesting is no less than your life-long devotion to a project whose tractability cannot be guaranteed. But if you, like me, are willing to delay your gratifications for a shot at something grand and enduring, I trust you will find the reward worth the sacrifice”.

The library manager, as he had predicted, soon walked his last nocturnal walk around the library, and the woman, touched and honored by his last wish, set about with her huge undertaking.

Adapting her previous knowledge about tree shaping was the easy part. Tree branches, she knew, had a natural tendency of grafting if their vascular tissues are joined together so that, by pruning and wiring new growing material to areas under the bark, she was able to control the tree’s growth. Her inquiries also led her deep into the realms of fluid mechanics and mathematics, where the fact that the total cross-sectional area of all child branches equals that of the parent branch meant that she had to calculate what trunk radius was required to give the tree enough capacity to represent the entire library. Sycamores were particularly prone to graft, so by the end of the first year, she had planted a sycamore sapling in the flower bed.

The hard part, and the part that would consume her subsequent seven decades, was that of organizing all the literature and mapping it onto actual tree branches. She got permission to close the library from the inflow of more literature, and began to, for every single work in the library holdings, wring out a hierarchical structure from its linear restrictions. She would represent its gist as a root-node, and let the ideas that supported it be its child branches. Then, she would see if the root figured as an internal node in another work’s tree, and affix it there, embedding each idea in its natural slot. Because the relationships varied in their meaning – sometimes an idea would progress from antecedent ideas, sometimes contradict it – she invented signs and qualifiers to express this, from which a whole grammatical system eventually would emerge.

With the passing of years, her personal note-collection bulged to a size worthy of its own library department, growing denser and denser in inserts, errata and marginalia. The sycamore would fan out in its full verdant glory, with classes of knowledge carved into its bark as bands of gold lettering, to which the scholars would turn repeatedly, the way a wanderer refers to his map. And, with the passing of many more, the woman’s hands would grow veiny and shriveled, her hair white, her back hunched, but her mind remained as unrelenting.

So there she stood on her ladder, wiring a twig into place, when the young man below commanded her attention. She answered him:

“Believe me, sir, I know this library inside and out, and there exists no discipline by that name.”

“Oh really? You see, I have come a long way after a friend told me that this place houses a rather sizeable collection of scientometrics literature, perhaps shelved under the wrong label. ”

“The labels, sir, you will find inscribed on this sycamore.”

He looked askance at first, but inspected the tree for a brief moment. Then, he broke out in laughter. Condescendingly he said:

Surely you wouldn’t expect to find scientometrics included in a pictorial representation of the sciences? This tree – poor soul, whoever wasted their time on such an obsolescent project – is itself a work of scientometrics! Scientometrics – the measuring and mapping of science! Ah, and I think I just found the books my friend was talking about.”

He approached her personal note-collection, and began to thumb perfunctorily through two decades less than a lifetime.

“Well, this was, I must say, terribly underwhelming. Some attempt at a bibliographical system of cataloging literature hierarchically, of which at least 26 variants have already been developed, independently of each other. What a waste of a journey.”

He sighed and unfolded a map from his breast pocket, on which he jotted an annotation.

“Trees are so sad, I think. Each branch valiantly ramifying on its own, unaware of others, never to re-connect, doomed to duplicate what has already been done.”

He then walked towards the exit.

“But Sir!” the woman screamed, her frail frame trembling, “if you are mapping the discipline of science-mapping, what does that make you?”

And for a sympathetic instant he turned around with a look that mirrored hers.

“A scientometric-metrician”, he said. “The only one of whom I am currently aware.”