Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Firehose

When I arrived as an undergraduate at MIT, the orientation material likened an education there to drinking water from a firehouse. I get the same sense of frustrated exhilaration when I go to the amazingly useful web site of the National Center for Biotechnology Information. It's just plain humbling, how much there is to know.

The original raison d'être of NCBI, from its founding in 1988, was the maintenance of centralized databases of the staggering amount of genetic and other biological information, as well as tools for navigating through it. The center also funds extramural work to improve the acquisition, navigation and analysis of this and other data. Want to see the genetic markers in a particular section of human chromosome 13, together with nearby genes, hyperlinked to annotations of their function? It's all there for your perusal. And more. And more.

NCBI also hosts PubMed, a very useful hyperlinked database of journal articles, centered on biology and medicine, but also including other journals to some degree. It features really smart keyword searching, and includes links to online copies that are sometimes free. In fact, new rules also require, in principle, that a copy of any publication of research funded by the National Institutes of Health be deposited or freely linked at PubMed within a year of its publication, although I'm not sure they have the resources to enforce that requirement.

But one very cool resource, for those of us who don't have access to university libraries, is the bookshelf. I like Wikipedia a lot (although the memristor entry looks like it was written by HP), and I refer to it for background information in my stories, cautiously. But there's nothing like going straight to Alberts' Molecular Biology of the Cell, Stryer's Biochemistry, or dozens of other texts, for truly authoritative information (at least at the time it was written), systematically and comprehensively presented.

Take a sip!


  1. Don - the bookshelf is pretty cool, but it seems like navigation is lousy. Am I missing something, or is it impossible to just page through the text? It sure looks like I have to use a search query to read any of the actual content.

  2. Doug,

    No, you're right about the navigation being lousy. I should have mentioned that. It's best at finding things directly from a search. But it really needs a "Next" and "Previous" arrow for going through a section systematically.

    Perhaps the book publishers don't want it to be too easy?

    The National Academies also make their reports available on line a page at a time, but you have to buy the complete pdf. But their page-by-page navigation is quite acceptable.