A harmless drudge…..

An awful lot of our work in polymer informatics is concerned with the development of ontologies, taxonomies and dictionaries, all of which aim to define the terms we are using for the benefit of fellow humans but also machines.

In doing so, we are of course part of a long tradition – and one of the most important exponents of this tradition in the UK is Samuel Johnson. I have just finished watching a documentary on the BBC on Johnson’s life and also the trials and tribulations he had to go through when working on the dictionary.

The issues are much the same as those we encounter today: agreeing on the definition of a term (in our polymer work, a favourite and recurring example is IUPAC’s definition of a macromolecule as “a molecule of high relative molecular mass, the structure of which essentially comprises the multiple repetition of units derived, actually or conceptually, from molecules of low relative molecular mass” or the fact that IUPAC regards “macromolecule” and “polymer molecule” as synonymous terms, but then goes on to define a polymer as “a substance composed of macromolecules”. In the former example, is thatr really a definition that could satisfy a rigorous scientist? And in the latter case, given the individual definitions of the terms “macromolecule” and “polymer”,..does it make sense to speak of “polymer molecules” in the first place?), the form a dictionary should take and, of course, ensuring that the dictionary is used (i.e. accepted) by a community of people.

It is amusing, then, to see how Johnson himself defines a person engaging in this activity – a lexicographer – and thus by, extension, defines the modern (computational) ontologist:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge[…]

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