Open Access

In the 1600s, scientists collaborated more openly in physics but in secrecy in the field of alchemy. This is probably why physics has continued to this day while alchemy is a dead science. This is why we need open access in modern technology. Shared innovation fosters progress, while secrecy leads to stagnation.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

In the early 1600s, Giovanni Batista Baliani, a Genoese mathematician and physicist, made an unusual observation. He noticed that mechanical pumps could draw water no higher than 34 feet up a hill. Giovani discussed this with fellow scientist Galileo Galilee, who said that this was because the “power of the vacuum” could only support water up to a certain height.

Galileo was wrong, but the discussion caught the attention of Gasparo Berti in Rome who thought this might be a useful way to create a vacuum. So he built a 35 foot long tube, plugged it at both ends and filled it with water. He then immersed one end of the tube in a trough of water and removed the plug from the submerged end. Water immediately rushed out of the tube till there was exactly 34 feet of the water in the tube - leaving a vacuum at the top. He concluded that the pressure of air on the surface of the water in the trough was supporting the column of water in the tube.

Torricelli substituted water with mercury—a liquid 14 times heavier than water—making his tube just 76 centimetres long and relatively portable. News of Torricelli’s improvement caught the attention of Blaise Pascal in France who was wondering whether this could be used to prove that air pressure varied at different altitudes. The higher you go, the less should be the weight of air pressing down on the barometer—so surely the length of mercury in the tube would be smaller. To test this, he asked Florin Perier to climb the Puy de Dome mountain and take measurements at the top.

In 1684, Perier observed that the column of mercury stood at 62.7 centimetres at the top of Puy Dome, proving that air pressure dropped the further up you go. Fourteen years later, Robert Boyle distilled all this into a law that would forever carry his name.

Alchemy’s Problem

I first read about the transcontinental history of the barometer in Tim Harford’s marvellous book The Data Detective. Harford was using the story to illustrate the collaborative energies that characterised the study of physics during the Scientific Revolution—which gave us many of the discoveries that our study of the science is based on to this day.

But even as physics was thriving, the other popular science of the day—alchemy—was dying a quiet death. This was surprising, considering that alchemists were, just like all the characters mentioned above, inveterate experimenters—constantly trying out new techniques and catalysts to convert base metal into gold. What’s more, many of the people responsible for the landmark physics experiments of the time—Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle et al—were themselves avid alchemists. Why then did alchemy fade away while physics flourished?

According to science historian David Wootton, the difference was one of approach. Physics was conducted in an atmosphere of radical openness, with experiments fully documented and rapidly disseminated to all who were interested in the subject. Alchemy, on the other hand, took place in secrecy—lest knowledge of one person’s experiments would allow another to discover the secret to making gold.

It is this suspicious, closeted approach that resulted in alchemy’s eventual demise. Without an opportunity to learn from others, alchemists often repeated experiments that had already been carried out, making the same mistakes that had already been made. Bereft of access to the hive mind, alchemy sputtered and died.

Open Trumps Closed

An open, collaborative approach almost always trumps closed, sequestered experimentation. During the Covid pandemic, the single biggest reason why we were able to develop test kits as quickly as we did was the complete genomic sequence of the virus was made available on open platforms within days. It is also why vaccines were developed in record time.

But open access remains the exception rather than the rule. Nowhere is this more evident than in tech, where algorithms of all sorts—search, newsfeed, algorithmic advertising, natural language processing, image recognition and the like—are zealously guarded to preserve commercial advantage. As a result, new entrants have to build from scratch, unable to leverage progress that has already been made. Not only is this inefficient, it is bound to result in the sort of intellectual stagnation that prevented alchemy from evolving into chemistry.

Over Covid, a number of tech companies pledged to grant access to their intellectual property for anyone who wanted to use it to solve problems created by the pandemic. I don’t know how many people took advantage of the offer, but this is exactly the sort of open access we need. We need more access to workflows, data sets and models so that a broader range of participants can innovate on them. We need new inventors to be encouraged to, in turn, share their innovations widely—recognising that unless we all build on the work of others, we will be doomed to work in narrow silos.

Re-design Incentives

If that requires redesigning existing incentives, we should find ways to do so. For instance, we could consider contributory royalties that will allow those on whose intellectual property a new innovation was based to receive a proportion of the revenue that appropriately recognises their contribution but at the same time provides enough of a monetary incentive for new inventors to invest the time and effort required to innovate. We need to allow more re-mixing if we are to spur innovation.

Because one thing is certain—if we don’t invent together, we will eventually not invent at all.