The Doric Column

November 16, 1998

Galileo in the News
Welcome to MBBNet
A Bit of Hype
The Learning Organization
The Doric Column

Galileo in the News

A couple summers ago I got a call from a guy doing free-lance for a special double issue of Life  magazine on "The Millennium." In his Web excursions he had found a paper I wrote on the origin of newspapers for Professor Gerhard Weiss, German 3512, in 1981. I had put the paper online as a link to an interview I did with renowned journalist Harrison Salisbury the same year.

When the special issue of Life  appeared a year ago, it featured a sepia picture of a newsboy (c.1910) carrying "what Walter Lippmann called 'the bible of democracy.'" Under the header "1609: Getting the News" the story read

    Among the items appearing in Issue 47 of Relation, the first regularly printed newspaper in history, was this understated news flash: "Signor Gallileo [sic] .... found a rule and visual measure, by which one can ... look at places thirty miles away, as if they were close by."
I was delighted that the Life  freelancer had taken my cue. In my study of the newspaper I had written: "A news item of extraordinary interest, linking the beginning of modern journalism with the beginning of modern science, is reported from Venice in the weekly 'Relation,' dated September 4, 1609."

Then I returned to that winter evening with the great Salisbury, Pulitzer Prize winner and creator of the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, in the living room of his sister's home in Minneapolis. He reached for his newspaper which had just begun home delivery in the Twin Cities. Holding the paper in his lap, he answered my question. "If it happens, you and I won't live to see it," he said. My impertinent question was "Will the computer chip and the video screen make the newspaper obsolete?"

Salisbury was right in 1981. He'd be right today. As one of us is still alive and in reasonably good health, however, and given what's happening out there, his prediction is beginning to wobble some.

Today the revolution in communications is driven by new technology, just as it was in Galileo's time.

Those of us who remember our newspaper routes or the peach sports section are a little wistful about all this. But we'll get over it. Most of us are adaptable. I've evolved.

A while back a faculty focus group asked me if I'm a geek. I paused. Can you be a geek without any formal education in it? Can you major in history and journalism, as I did, and never take a computer course, and still be a geek? Okay, if you say so.

Welcome to MBBNet

Technology has telescoped time in the research laboratory, too, ramping up scientific discovery and turning it into, well, technology, almost overnight. Today Galileo's "tool" is the network.

The symbol of science
for the next century
is the dynamical Net.
--Kevin Kelly,
Out of Control

Welcome to MBBNet. We call it Minnesota's virtual biomedical and bioscience community in our publicity efforts on Minnesota Public Radio's "Future Tense" and elsewhere. Partly that's because the term "virtual community" is plenty hot these days. Look what happened when debuted on Wall Street. Through the roof!

MBBNet has more modest pretensions. It is a way of connecting University of Minnesota faculty and students to several of the state's key industries -- biomedical technology, life sciences, and health care. In turn, it is a way of connecting those industries to our research centers and institutes and educational programs. So it's a two-way street, or superhighway if you prefer.

MBBNet is not a formal organization, a company, a laboratory, or a department. It has no office or CUFS accounting number, though there are at least three computational accomplices, each with a completely different operating system. It was built over the past three years with existing resources and a lot of elbow grease. The first material resource was a Mac IIcx, now retired.

MBBNet is an idea, pure and simple, and this is a good time for ideas. They are getting much better play these days than they did not so long ago. That helps to keep them passionately pursued by people tucked away in garages, basements, and out-of-the-way offices.

This particular idea has the backing of many people who keep one eye on the horizon, including Mark Yudof, our president. It also has caught the notice of people on five continents who know about Minnesota's leadership in biomedical technology and want to advertise on our network, enroll in our programs, form partnerships or find work. Some are just curious about how universities will fit into the so-called new economy.

A Bit of Hype

No other university in the country with an attached technology community of the key industries mentioned above, not MIT, not Stanford, not UT-Austin, not UC-San Diego, is as comprehensively connected as we are in Minnesota through MBBNet.

MBBNet has some 600 organizations on board now, and it's growing. Each organization has its own fully searchable MBBNet "front page." These pages are being updated by the organizations themselves as they begin to understand the value of participating in a virtual community of shared interests.

A query for, say, "diabetes" will give you a list of basic and clinical research programs, Minnesota manufacturers of devices, instruments and specialty foods, service organizations such as home health care, and a "Minnesota Firsts" photo essay with reference to our pioneering work in kidney transplants for diabetic patients.

The output is in AltaVista style, which many of you are familiar with. Just click on what you want and that will take you to the MBBNet front page. From there you can go inside the organization via its Web site. Try it out and send me your thoughts.

The Learning Organization

We hear a lot about the "Learning Organization" these days, especially in management circles. I don't know where management gurus place the university, the community of scholars, but it certainly is true that a lot more organized learning takes place outside universities than ever before.

As links are forged between university computers and computers in manufacturing and service companies, trade and economic development organizations, the offices of entrepreneurs and other risk takers, business and legal services, schools, nonprofits--the idea of a Learning Organization takes on a new meaning.

Some say less will be learned as more digitized information packs an already bloated global brain. But if you believe in the power of the Web to change many of the things we do in fundamental ways, then it has a big place in the Learning Organization of the future.

If you believe the Web is changing how we do science and also can help "ease the transfer of technology from our laboratories and classrooms into the marketplace of goods and services" as President Yudof put it in a note to me, then ideas like MBBNet will continue to gain currency in the Academy, as they plainly have beyond our slimmed-down walls.

The Doric Column

It's been a long time since my last column. "Delphic Whispers" was launched in the Minnesota Daily,  14 chip generations ago (if you go by the law laid down by Gordon Moore of Intel), during the Presidency of Gerald Ford. It was hammered out on an Underwood in the basement of Murphy Hall and first appeared on yellow copy paper.

I return to ancient Greece for the title of this current effort, but an architectural rather than oracular theme. Perhaps the times now are better suited for building.

When I wrote "Delphic Whispers" I was a graduate student in journalism. Some years later I found myself deep in the scientific enterprise, working closely with a top cancer geneticist, editing his manuscripts, arranging his press conferences, including one in New York City, and giving him ideas from my frequent literature surfing in the Bio-Medical Library.

Eventually he made me co-author of several papers and thus secured my reputation as an experimentalist. (More on that in an upcoming column).

Today I operate freely in the what Kevin Kelly at Wired called the "Third Culture" in a recent commentary in Science. The "possibility culture," the culture of nerds.

Once upon a time the likes of Solon, Maria Theresa, and Sacco and Vanzetti trafficked through my undergraduate brain. I still have a big place in there for language and history and journalism. But time marches on. I've evolved.

    --William Hoffman

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.