Many people remember struggling with maths at school, but few of us would expect that professional scientists suffer from a similar problem in their daily work. A new study by biologists at the University of Bristol shows that scientists tend to overlook their colleagues’ research if it is packed full of mathematical equations.
Scientists would like to believe that the popularity of new theories depends entirely on their scientific value, in terms of novelty, importance and technical correctness.† But the Bristol study shows that scientists pay less attention to theories that are crammed with mathematical details.
Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson , researchers in Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences , found that scientific articles presenting many equations on each page are seldom referred to by other scientists.† The most maths-heavy articles are referenced 50 per cent less often than those with little or no maths.
Many scientists, including the celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, have worried about how mathematics will affect the impact of their work, but the Bristol study is the first to measure the extent of the problem.
Fawcett said: "This is an important issue because nearly all areas of science rely on close links between mathematical theory and experimental work.† If new theories are presented in a way that is off-putting to other scientists, then no one will perform the crucial experiments needed to test those theories.† This presents a barrier to scientific progress."
So is there any way to overcome the communication barrier between theory and experiments?† One long-term remedy would be to improve the mathematical training of science graduates.