‘Reinventing discovery’

Updated 30 May 2012

‘Reinventing discovery’

The Internet has revolutionized the way we communicate. This has not only affected the way we do business but it has also accelerated scientific discovery. Michael Nielsen argues that the reinvention of discovery is one of the great changes of our time, “the second era of science” and that a more open approach to science must be demanded of scientists and scientific institutions as well.
“This book is the story of this change, what it means for us, and what we need to do to make it happen”.
The Internet provides a common and convenient space where problems can be solved at a greater speed. The Polymath Project is a good example of how research takes place in this new era of networked science.
The Polymath Project was set in motion, in January 2009, by Tim Gowers, a brilliant mathematician, recipient of the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, dubbed the Nobel Prize of mathematics. He chose an unsolved mathematical problem but instead of trying to solve it on his own, he invited other people on his blog to help out. He was convinced that many minds would be more successful than one. Over the following 37 days, 27 people wrote 800 mathematical comments.
Gowers described this period as one of the most exciting six weeks of his mathematical life: The polymaths had solved the original problem as well as a harder problem.
Ten years before in 1999, world chess champion Garry Kasparov, played a game of chess, online against the world. The world team chose a new move every 24 hours. The move which received the most votes was taken. An average of 5000 people voted on a typical move, and more than 50,000 from 75 countries took part in this game known as “Kasparov versus the World”.
The World Team resigned after 62 moves of online playing. Kasparov said this had been “the greatest game in the history of chess”. In a book, he wrote about it he admitted that he had spent more energy on this online game against the world than on any other in his career.
It is interesting to know that most of the best tools to increase collective intelligence were invented by amateurs like Linus Torvalds who created the open source Linux operating system when he was a 21-year-old student.
The next example shows the awesome yet untapped potential for scientific discovery just by connecting the right people. A young woman Nita Umashandar, from Tucson, Arizona, set up ASSET, in 2004, after spending a year in India.
This not-for-profit organization aimed at training Indian girls in technology and also helping them find a job. Faced with a lack of reliable electricity to power wireless routers, Asset contacted InnoCentive, an online marketplace to solve scientific problems in order to design a reliable solar-powered wireless router. A 31-year-old Texan software engineer, Zacary Brown, came up with the best idea and a prototype is being made by engineering students at the University of Arizona.
We think that scientists are the only ones who make discoveries but that is no longer the case. The Internet has completely transformed the relationship between science and society.
“One of the most fertile areas where this is happening is citizen science, with projects such as galaxy Zoo recruiting online volunteers to help make scientific discoveries” says Nielsen. As soon as the Galaxy Zoo site went live, the response was overwhelming .
By the end of the first day more than 70,000 galaxy classifications were sent every hour and just a few months, Galaxy Zoo’s first classification of galaxies was complete.
In the era of networked science, “citizen scientists” no longer work on their own, deprived of the feed-back of colleagues.
If citizen science is changing who can be a scientist, the open access movement is aiming for a free access to scientific papers. At the moment, most of the scientific knowledge is only accessible to scientists.
One of the greatest successes of the open access movement, is a popular website, known as the physics preprint “arXiv” (pronounced “archive”). A “preprint” is a scientific paper, often at late draft stage, ready to be considered by a scientific journal, but not yet published in a journal,” explains Nielsen. If you log into www.arXiv.com, you will discover hundreds of thousands of preprints submitted by the world’s physicists and ready to be downloaded for free.
Unsurprisingly, some well known scientific journals are lobbying against open access. Scientific publishing is a lucrative business. In 2009, Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific journal publisher, made a profit of 1,100 million US dollars. And in 2004, the American Chemical Society, a not-for-profit society, made a profit of about 40 million US dollars on their journals and online databases.
Science blogs are also changing the role of science in society. “Pharyngula”, Paul Myers ‘blog, a biologist from the University of Minnesota, receives over 100,000 visits per day. Blogs offer any one with an internet connection the opportunity to get an informal and surreptitious glimpse into the minds of many of the world’s top scientists.
However, many scientists are hanging on to their traditional ways of working, alone. Alexander Grothendieck, one of the world’s most famous mathematicians, is convinced that solitude nurtured his creativity. This helped him, he says, to “reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member”.
The Internet has changed the way we are informed and thus created an opportunity to rethink the way scientists work and create new tools for thought.
“We are reinventing discovery, and the result will be a new era of networked science that speeds up discovery, not in one small corner of science, but across all of science” concludes Michael Nielsen.


Mysterious monolith in US desert reportedly disappears

Updated 29 November 2020

Mysterious monolith in US desert reportedly disappears

  • The shiny, triangular pillar was spotted on November 18 by baffled local officials
  • Some observers pointed out the object’s resemblance to the avant-garde work of John McCracken

LOS ANGELES: A mysterious metal monolith found in the remote desert of the western United States, sparking a national guessing game over how it got there, has apparently disappeared, officials said.
The Bureau of Land Management in Utah said Saturday it had received “credible reports” that the object had been removed “by an unknown party” on Friday evening.
The bureau “did not remove the structure which is considered private property,” it said in a statement.
“We do not investigate crimes involving private property which are handled by the local sheriff’s office.”
The shiny, triangular pillar which protruded some 12 feet from the red rocks of southern Utah, was spotted on November 18 by baffled local officials counting bighorn sheep from the air.
After landing their helicopter to investigate, Utah Department of Public Safety crew members found “a metal monolith installed in the ground” but “no obvious indication of who might have put the monolith there.”
News of the discovery quickly went viral, with many noting the object’s similarity with strange alien monoliths that trigger huge leaps in human progress in Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Others remarked on its discovery during a turbulent year that has seen the world gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, and optimistically speculated it could have a different function entirely.
“This is the ‘reset’ button for 2020. Can someone please press it quickly?” joked one Instagram user.
“Somebody took the time to use some type of concrete-cutting tool or something to really dig down, almost in the exact shape of the object, and embed it really well,” Nick Street, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety told the New York Times.
“It’s odd,” he added. “There are roads close by, but to haul the materials to cut into the rock, and haul the metal, which is taller than 12 feet in sections — to do all that in that remote spot is definitely interesting.”
Some observers pointed out the object’s resemblance to the avant-garde work of John McCracken, a US artist who lived for a time in nearby New Mexico, and died in 2011.
His son, Patrick McCracken, told the Times recently that his father had told him in 2002 that he would “like to leave his artwork in remote places to be discovered later.”
Although officials had refused to disclose the object’s location out of fear that hordes of curious sightseers would flock to the remote wilderness, some explorers had been able to track it down.
Instagram user David Surber said he trekked to the monolith using coordinates posted on Reddit.
“Apparently the monolith is gone,” he posted later.
“Nature returned back to her natural state I suppose. Something positive for people to rally behind in 2020.”