How has modern science progressed? This is a tough question to answer for the last few generations. It is even harder if you have aspirations to go back a lot further. Lutz Bornmann and Rudiger Mutz certainly don’t lack for ambition. They look at the growth of science since the 17th Century.
There is a pretty obvious problem with looking at science back 300-400 years ago. The records are not very good. “Unfortunately, there is currently no literature database containing every publication since the beginning of modern science to today that can be used for statistical analysis” (Bornmann and Mutz, 2015, page 2220). Here I wasn’t sure whether they were being humorous given the idea of a database of all science since the 17th seems too good to be true, or whether they genuinely think with advances of technology we might get to that point and have such a database we just aren’t there yet. (Surely we have lost lots of books in the intervening centuries so I’m assuming the first).
Their approach is to look at cited references — i.e. what was written in the past that is referred to in work that is in their current database. This is useful although they have a lot of valid disclaimers on why their approach isn’t perfect. I’m not too worried mainly because it is obviously imperfect so no one should be fooled. It is interesting and fun, and so it is fine to put up with imperfections.
They see “three essential growth phrases in the development of science….from less than 1% up to the middle of the 18th century, to 2 to 3% up to the period between the two world wars, and 8 to 9% to 2010” (Bornmann and Mutz, 2015, page 2215).
Science has an impressive growth rate. I’m not sure what we do with the results now but it was pretty cool to have a graph that goes back to 1650.
Read: Lutz Bornmann and Rüdiger Mutz. (2015) “Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 66, (11) 2215-2222.