Topical Docs

In a basement deep below the University of Victoria, scientists are assembling a fantastic new tool that will allow them to peer more deeply into the inner universe than ever before.

The Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope (STEHM) will able to zoom in to 40 trillionths of a meter, 2.5 million times smaller than the width of a paper sheet.

This new microscope is so sensitive that even a passing cloud could affect its readings. Its specimens will be so tiny that a conventional electron microscope is needed just to prepare them. Scientists will be able to make detailed measurements of previously unknown sub-atomic characteristics. In fact, they will actually be able to move individual atoms.

I’ve always been fascinated by the reality that all matter in the universe is made up of atoms, and that all atoms are comprised of only three components, or particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Simply by assembling these three particles into various combinations, one can create anything from water, stone, plants, and people, to planets, stars and galaxies. It is the modularity that is so intriguing – from three parts, one obtains all.

Information development has caught up to this model of reality. The basic component of a document is no longer a page, chapter, or book – it is a topic, in a paradigm known as topic-based authoring.

Topics can be merged, moved, and grouped in endless combinations. There is a natural hierarchy formed when you assemble topics into larger chunks. This hierarchy corresponds to the building blocks of matter, as follows:

1. A topic is to a document what a subatomic particle (such as an electron) is to matter. It is the basic component in a document. Each topic can and must stand alone.

2. Combinations of topics are like atoms. They form a section of a document containing a group of related topics. This corresponds to a book within an online help TOC, or a chapter within a book.

3. Groups of sections are like groups of atoms, or molecules, for example, a water molecule. These correspond to an entire document.

4. Groups of documents form a library, which is like the various molecules combined together to form the complex matter, or compounds, that we encounter every day, everything from plastic to clothes to hamburgers.

Summing up, we have two very similar hierarchies:

  • Components of Matter: Particle – Atom – Molecule – Compound
  • Components of Information: Topic – Section – Document – Library

The base component is the particle and topic. Merging the names particle and topic, we get topical.

Which can only mean that all our documentation should indeed be topical.

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