The ways and means of science are changing. It’s true: I can feel the tide tugging at me. I’m that waterlogged bit of dead tree mired in beach shingle; the last few passes of the surf have caused me to start sliding in. As the tide continues to turn, I will soon be flowing out into the grey deeps, liberated from gravity and on my way – whether I want to be or not.
Too much information: Scientific datasets no longer color between the lines
What triggered this idea today was Excel spreadsheets. Like them or loathe them, it’s not really possible to analyze a genome-wide screen without a large number of them. In the past I have got round my antipathy towards the output of this hateful Microsoft product by printing the damn things out at the first opportunity, impaling them spitefully with holes and filing them in a tidy binder with colourful tabs. Soon, the printed spreadsheet would acquire scribbles, notes, a rainbow’s worth of highlighter pen marks. Thumbed through until the corners were ragged, stained with coffee, I would know exactly where my experiments were and what I had to do next. I might feel the need to update or correct the electronic version, but it was never the working copy.
All well and good, but what to do when your spreadsheet has thousands of rows and more than fifty columns? No amount of column narrowing and font reduction can force one of these babies onto a piece of A4. Print it out and your machine will spew out a monster collage that would need to be pieced together like the Dead Sea Scrolls (along with about a hundred superfluous blank pages for good measure). But try as I might, I cannot seem to think when facing a small computer screen with multiple windows of information that I need to compare. Click one open and the other is immediately forgotten; click back and you forget why you left in the first place.
But there is hope: I liken this difficulty to the mental shift I had to make, in the 1980’s, when we all had to start composing words with a keyboard instead of a pen. Remember that, those of you of a certain age? I have a distinct recollection of sitting at a shiny Canon electric typewriter in my university dorm room, trying to force my creative juices to flow without a pen between my fingers. I felt disarmed, almost crippled. The typing movements of my fingers could not seem to stimulate the same neuronal pathways. Now, of course, my handwritten journals are what is rough and artless – only with a keyboard can I produce quality material. My brain, it seems, has adopted. And I have no doubt that the next generation will be able to perform these mental acrobatics, to think in virtual space, as naturally as breathing.
In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me: I have a tide to catch.