One way of achieving a high-level overview of what's going on in research (in selected areas, at least):http://paperscape.org/
From the info page:
"Paperscape is a tool to visualise the arXiv, an open, online repository for scientific research papers. The Paperscape map currently includes all (non-withdrawn) papers from the arXiv and is updated daily.
Each paper in the map is represented by a circle, with the area of the circle proportional to the number of citations that paper has. In laying out the map, an N-body algorithm is run to determine positions based on references between the papers. There are two “forces” involved in the N-body calculation: each paper is repelled from all other papers using an anti-gravity inverse-distance force, and each paper is attracted to all of its references using a spring modelled by Hooke’s law. We further demand that there is no overlap of the papers."