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Pushing back boundaries

It is 1AM here in Cork, and an adenoidal singer with a very eclectic song selection is screaming outside my hotel window, making it difficult to sleep. So I am reading “The Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch” by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. Terry Pratchett is my second favorite author (next to Patrick O’Brian), and I enjoy the “Science of Discworld” series. In these books, chapters from a novelette by Pratchett alternate with scientific discussion by Stewart and Cohen.

The first part of the book has some good things to say about the scientific process. From Pratchett:

It [a large piece of machinery in a lab] also helps in pushing back boundaries, and it doesn’t matter what boundaries these are, since any researcher will tell you it is the pushing that matters, not the boundary.

That, in essence, is the problem with much of faculty reviews, paper refereeing, and conference paper selection. Most of the time, we evaluate the pushing, with insufficient attention to the boundary. Pratchett, as (almost) always, gets it right.