Citizen Science Musings: The Tansley Effect

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By Sheldon Greaves

First edition cover of Frank Herbert's Dune. Wikipedia Image.

The literature of science fiction (and yes, to all you English professorial über-snobs, science fiction is literature, thank you very much) is a rich source of vocabulary and neologisms for the rest of the language. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land gave the verb "grok" to a whole generation back in the 60's. In the book, it comes from the Martian language, and has the original meaning of "to drink", but includes a much wider range of meanings having to do with understanding or comprehension.

Then we have William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, which first coined the term "cyberspace" to describe the "consensual hallucination" as Gibson called the "world" that would become synonymous with the Internet. It is interesting to note that Gibson's breakout novel, the first ever to win the Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick awards for science fiction, was written in 1984, well before the world wide web was in place. The internet itself was still very much in its infancy.

Gibson wrote his novel on a 1930's vintage manual typewriter.

There is another neologism I would like to see enter the language, at least that used by scientists and amateurs in particular. It comes from Frank Herber's magnificent novel, Dune, which was published in 1965. The story is set on a desolate desert planet, Arrakis (aka, "Dune"). One of the important sub-plots involves a plan by the natives of Dune to transform their barren planet into one more suited for human life. In an appendix to the novel describing this plan, Herbert describes Imperial Planetologist Pardot Kynes setting up his research using many small groups of amateurs to acquire the working facts needed to plan the slow transformation of a planet:

"Kynes - direct, savagely intent Kynes - knew that highly organised research is guaranteed to produce nothing new. He set up small-unit experiments with regular interchange of data to produce a swift Tansley effect, let each group find it's own path."

If I read this correctly, Herbert is using the phrase "Tansley effect" to connote a kind of crowd-sourced compilation of data by multiple working groups. This sounds a lot like citizen science to me, and I feel that we need a name for the accumulation of information gathered in this way. The only difference, and for me it's a little more than a quibble, is that in the novel the scientific teams are not only gathering data, they're doing their own experiments. Citizen science isn't there yet, although amateur science has been there for a long time.

So, who or what is Tansley? The best I could find was botanist and ecologist Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) who was an important figure in the early science of ecology, something that deeply informs Herbert's fiction. According to Wikipedia, Tansley "...helped establish the ecological significance of the Indiana Dunes in Northwest Indiana. This led to conservation efforts to preserve the Indiana Dunes." Given Herbert's well-known penchant for researching the science behind his fiction and his interest in ecology, it seems plausible that he would have run across Tansley's work and named a future scientific principle after him. Hebert himself was an enthusiastic amateur scientist and science enthusiast, who was very interested in ecology and efficient use of land resources.

The Tansley Effect: what happens when a lot of amateur scientists work together on a single problem, each in their own way.

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3 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: The Tansley Effect

  1. Anna Sudaric Hillier says:

    I really miss the “Hard Science” in Science Fiction. Most of the masters have past away. I first met Harry Stubbs as a Harvard College Observatory grad and his writings in the early Sky and Telescope magazine or even The Telescpe Magazine when he wrote about the Mountains of Mars. He actually went on to be HAL CLEMENT in his Science Fiction writings.

  2. Pingback: The Tansley Effect | Alex McClung

  3. sean says:

    Love the science in all the original six Dunes without doubts. Herbert was involved with his science of Dune. When I read Dune the first time in 1975 and still read the six every 3-5yrs. It’s amazing all these years later new questions,insights and awe of this man’s vision in numerous sciences including religion,politics,etc.in an era where they DID NOT really exist. Should be required reading!!!

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