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Book of the Day: Reinventing Discovery – The New Era of Networked Science

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
10th March 2012


Book: Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. Michael Nielsen. Princeton University Press, 2011

Abstract

In Reinventing Discovery, Michael Nielsen argues that we are living at the dawn of the most dramatic change in science in more than 300 years. This change is being driven by powerful new cognitive tools, enabled by the internet, which are greatly accelerating scientific discovery. There are many books about how the internet is changing business or the workplace or government. But this is the first book about something much more fundamental: how the internet is transforming the nature of our collective intelligence and how we understand the world.

Reinventing Discovery tells the exciting story of an unprecedented new era of networked science. We learn, for example, how mathematicians in the Polymath Project are spontaneously coming together to collaborate online, tackling and rapidly demolishing previously unsolved problems. We learn how 250,000 amateur astronomers are working together in a project called Galaxy Zoo to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe, and how they are making astonishing discoveries, including an entirely new kind of galaxy. These efforts are just a small part of the larger story told in this book–the story of how scientists are using the internet to dramatically expand our problem-solving ability and increase our combined brainpower.

This is a book for anyone who wants to understand how the online world is revolutionizing scientific discovery today–and why the revolution is just beginning.

Michael Nielsen is one of the pioneers of quantum computing. He is an essayist, speaker, and advocate of open science.

Reviews

Jack Stilgoe:

“Nielsen is one of a growing band who believe that there is a mine of untapped knowledge online. He describes the potential of the “semantic web”, built from data rather than words, and explains how information scientists are starting to detect new patterns in this data. This is how Don Swanson, with no medical training, discovered a link between migraines and magnesium. It is how Google is able to track the spread of flu by analysing search terms and to translate our web pages using its vast quantities of linguistic data.

The argument for openness is not just one of efficiency. It is also about science’s social standing. The scientists behind the human genome project, led by John Sulston, conquered their own proprietary instincts to demand full publication of all genome data. Data for the flu virus, however, is fragmented and guarded. So while Google roars ahead, epidemiologists struggle to track and combat flu infections.

Nielsen’s anger is palpable: “We have an opportunity to change the way knowledge is constructed. But the scientific community, which ought to be in the vanguard, is instead bringing up the rear.” His prescription is pragmatic, more carrot than stick. Force scientists to share and they will share badly; give them incentives to do so and they will see its value. He describes some design principles for open science that explain why efforts such as Tim Gowers’s Polymath project have been such a success (27 mathematicians co-operating online took a month to prove a theorem that had baffled individual mathematicians), while others have become online ghost towns.

Nielsen is a physicist, and was a wunderkind of quantum computing, before he took leave under George Soros’s patronage to write this book. At times he betrays a physicist’s naivety about the complexity of knowledge. He is happier discussing amateur stargazers and online chess games than recent bust-ups over the MMR vaccine and “Climategate”. In the life sciences, data is often messier, stakes are often higher and much of the knowledge that needs to be shared may be tacit, impossible to write down and expensive to share. For biologists, intellectual property increasingly chokes the free exchange of ideas. But this must not become an excuse for inaction.

Science has progressive ends, but conservative means. Scientists see their methods as the root of their authority and they guard them jealously. Nielsen asks scientists to reinvent what they do, for the good of science and the good of society. His call to arms is timely and important.”

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