Shared space (in science).

I thought I would launch the 2012 edition of this blog by writing about shared space. If you have not come across it before, it is (to quote Wikipedia), “an urban design concept aimed at integrated use of public spaces.” The BBC here in the UK ran a feature on it recently, and prominent in examples of shared space in the UK was Exhibition Road. I note this here on the blog since it is about 100m from my office.

Shared space is the Mornington Crescent of urban design, where you have to work out the rules of the game by in effective participating in it. Thus the new “rules” of travelling down Exhibition Road (by either foot, car, bike, bus or indeed motorbike as I do each day) are not declared, and each participant works them out on the fly. This is supposed to lead to fewer misunderstandings, although the practice does seem rather different (at least at the moment). But where is the chemistry? Well, these thoughts were triggered by two colleagues independently asking me about how chemists use metaphors, and how chemists use representations. I have in fact touched upon both of these previously, and it struck me that this last example, of arrow pushing in organic chemistry, was in fact a nice example of a shared space in chemistry. The rules of arrow pushing are not formally set out (in an IUPAC rule book or similar) but are worked out on the hoof so to speak. Except that the space is shared only by organic chemists. I have observed over the years that e.g. physical or inorganic chemists will mostly not dare venture into that shared space; they often give a rather good impression of not understanding the rules. I also know from experience that mathematicians and physicists regard arrow pushing as anything other than a shared (scientific) space.

Yet the modern scope and ethos of science is that we should all venture into shared spaces (whether they are in or out of our comfort zones). Perhaps, in science, the problem is that so much of what we do has what I refer to as “implicit semantics” (its part of our DNA of e.g. being a chemist). Take for example the diagram below (which I used previously) which sets out four possible sets of rules for this particular shared space. Even so, without further explanation, you might be struggling to infer what message is carried by this diagram. That is because so much of it contains implicit semantics, and unless you recognise the missing features, how can you go about finding out what is invisible?

Curly arrow pushing

My concluding thought would be that shared space is what the semantic web is surely striving for. And if Exhibition Road is anything to go by, it is clearly quite a challenge. But if I (and particularly the pedestrians I encounter there each day) end up surviving 2012, perhaps the Semantic Web may one day come about as well!

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