Saturday, April 2, 2011

What's your Nobel number?

We like quantifying things. We design impact factors, and h-indices to determine the scientific worth of a journal, or a researcher. Sometimes these numbers are meaningful. Sometimes they are gamed. Sometimes they are misused.

My pet peeve against these measures (and their extended family) is that they are designed to measure popularity. Unfortunately, they are commonly used as a proxy for scientific quality.

Can high-quality stuff be popular? You bet.

But the relationship between quality and popularity is tenuous at best.

High-quality stuff can stay under the radar for prolonged periods, and flashy low-quality stuff can go platinum. We intuitively understand and appreciate this difference when we judge music, movies, politics, or literature.

Love them or hate them, we probably have to learn to live with them.

There is another class of numbers, like the Erdos number, that exist for pure entertainment and tongue-in-cheek bragging value. They measure proximity to greatness, and are related to the six-degrees of separation idea.

Let us define a new number (maybe it already exists) which we shall call the "Nobel number" which measures the shortest "collaborative distance" between a scientist and a Nobel Laureate as measured by authorship in scientific literature.

Thus, if you have co-authored a paper with a Nobel Laureate, your Nobel number is 1.

Mine is 2.

PS: I saw Energy Secretary Steven Chu on CSPAN yesterday. He is a Nobel Laureate and co-authored a paper with my PhD advisor Ron Larson.

No comments: