Current ideas, eclectic charge

Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia
May 5, 1995

In everything that relates to science, I am a whole Encyclopaedia behind the rest of the world." So said Charles Lamb (1775-1834) in The Old and the New Schoolmaster. Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia is not quite as hoary as Lamb, but the first edition appeared in 1938, so its lifetime has certainly covered a significant portion of an exciting time in the development of science. I am sure the full set of editions provides a good historical record of general scientific activity and its varying focuses during this century.

The encyclopaedia aims to provide a "compact" format with a broad and up-to-date coverage for most mainstream scientific areas. The material has been much updated over the years. However, the style of presentation and some of the material in the ninth edition show its age. The monochrome and often hand-drawn illustrations, in particular, look dated. A complete overhaul of these and the addition of a modicum of colour, where appropriate, would be a worthwhile investment for the next edition.

The whole work is split into two volumes, each with a 69-page index. Perhaps this fact, together with the extra cost involved, is the reason that the encyclopaedia was not split into more volumes. However, from a user's point of view, it would be more convenient to have a larger number of smaller volumes, possibly boxed, to make handling easier.

Given the encyclopaedia's scope, a reviewer is inevitably drawn to entries in which he/she has greatest knowledge for more detailed scrutiny and checking. My main research interests are in the area of computing; of course other, more established and less fast-moving areas may give a fairer test of the encyclopaedia.

The index includes terms of a general nature, for example, "program", but does not go into much further detail, such as types of programming (imperative, functional, logic and so on). Under "logic" the basic digital gates to perform Boolean algebra operations are covered, but there is no mention of logic in its more general mathematical sense or logic for reasoning about computer-based systems.

Some terms have different technical meanings in different subject areas. For example, the "expression" entry deals with its mechanical sense. However, its mathematical and computing meanings are not covered. At least a cross-reference in the entry would be worth while.

Some important subjects are dismissed rather summarily. "Software" is described in a single paragraph, which does not allow space for much discussion, for example, on the various types of software and software engineering techniques. This would be acceptable if there were more cross-references dealing with aspects related to software. "Digital computer" and "microprogram" are mentioned, together with "terms listed under alphabetical index". However, the latter is not very helpful in an index where there is only one entry under "software".

Networks have developed rapidly recently. More recent buzzwords such as the "information superhighway" and "Internet" are not included in the "network" entry, which is, however, more discursive than many. Instead the older terms "global village" and "NSFNET" are used. Indeed, the entry talks of the "goals as of 1993".

The problem of staying up to date is even worse in the entry on the chronology of the microprocessor. Here the latest date mentioned is 1987, and there have been considerable developments in the area since then. Some of the more extensive entries - for example, "artificial intelligence" (AI), which contains four and a half pages of material - include references for further reading, which are welcome. However, the length and emphasis of each entry seems to be highly dependent on the interest of the particular contributor involved. For example, under AI, there are five detailed and repetitive figures on pattern recognition, obviously a favoured subject of the contributor, which do not add much to the understanding of the general reader.

I asked two doctors to scan some medical entries. One was singularly unimpressed to find that his entire area of specialisation, orthopaedics, is omitted from the index and as an entry. They also encountered unused terminology, unexplained specialist terms and some information that became outdated in the 1960s.

An expert in metallurgy found that subject rather better represented but still poorly cross-referenced and indexed, making some subjects difficult to find even though they are included.

Overall, the encyclopaedia appears to give a rather eclectic view of the various areas covered. Given its scope, great depth in any particular area cannot be expected. However, a significantly better balance and cross-referencing of the entries could be achieved by more careful sub-editing. The number of private buyers of this encyclopaedia in its current form is likely to be small, but any library with a good-sized general scientific section would want a copy, budget allowing. However, I look forward to the day when the majority of people will be able to access such material on-line.

Jonathan Bowen is senior research officer, Oxford University Computing Laboratory.

Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia

Editor - Douglas M. Considine
ISBN - 0 442 01864 9 (set); 1 1865 7 (vol 1); 0 1868 1 (vol 2)
Publisher - Van Nostrand Reinhold
Price - £125.00
Pages - 3,455 (vols 1 and 2)

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