Science and the Internet

June 25, 2007 — Leave a comment

If the tail was smarter, the tail would wag the dog.

Two things have just come back to me at the same time and collided wonderfully, thanks to an article over at Universe Today. The article is one about the liquid mirror telescope that a NASA researcher proposes could be built on the Moon in the near(ish) future. The eagle-eyed among you may recalled I blogged the same story back in May, thanks to a link from Wired.

This isn’t me trying to say ‘I got the scoop’, because clearly I didn’t, but it got me thinking about the effect the internet can have on science. I think about the internet quite a bit, and its possible long-term influence on our culture. In fact my friend writes a blog about the internet and its effect on literature and fiction. Also, I found myself an almost-expert on blogs in recent years. So I would say I was a knowledgeable person on the matter.

The Wired article, so far as I can tell, was an original piece (compared to my own which was a link to it). They had interviewed this guy, Roger Angel, and created a journalistic piece on his research for NASA. Digg found the story, as did a host of other astronomy and science blogs (I can’t be bothered to link to all of them) and it did the rounds in the blogosphere. That was all back at the end of May. now, one month later an official NASA news release describes how the technical article for a giant liquid mirror telescope has been made public etc etc. The article is to appear in Nature.

180718main_3-7-m1.JPG

So what happened? Clearly the internet knew about this before Nature could publish it. So this concept had reached the public domain before the journals had processed it. I rather like this fact and it was the first thing that occurred to me when I realised the echoed story had occurred.

The other thing that came back to me today was a book called ‘The Long Tail’, by Chris Anderson the editor of Wired magazine (a coincidence!). I found out it is out in paperback, but I listened to in on audiobook a while ago. The book outlines how massive niche markets have been shaping the economy in recent years thanks to the internet and sites such as eBay, iTunes and Amazon. It turns out that millions of highly selective minor purchases (such as niche music on iTunes) actually make up most of the sales compared with the more popular, mass marketed items (i.e. hit songs). Once the restriction of shelf space is removed, retailers no longer have to only stock certain items and the internet provides a forum for distributing digital media on an unlimited scale. No shelves required. Well its a great book – read it.

Anyway, my point is that science could easily go the way of entertainment because it is now digital. Papers no longer need to be published by journals to be read, they are instead deposited on vast pre-print archives online. Good ideas that capture minds can be distributed via the niche interest blogs, email, and within university department – all instantaneously and without the restriction of paper, time and money.

I am finishing my first year of an astronomy PhD and have never, not once so far, picked up and read any edition of any journal. Weird, huh? Not really, I get an automatic daily email from the astro-ph pre-print server and I browse a daily list of new articles and papers related to my subject. I can also just as easily read a Canadian or Japanese paper as a UK one.

Opte Project map of the internet

So what about the liquid telescope? Well it seems that in this case, Wired beat Nature to the scoop. In fact there is very little about astronomy which Nature picks up, that I do not hear about first from some other source. Now maybe at this point we still need Nature to tell us, retrospectively, what was important and notable. Perhaps they have the skill as mavens of interestingness.
Imagine if the ocean of scientific ideas was truly democratic, in the internet sense of the word. I don’t know what it would mean for science long-term but I have a feeling that if it could be kept free of the corrupting influence of marketing, then an open source science community could be the future of many discplines.

Digg.com’s science categories are – on the whole – reflective of current interests and may act as an experiment of sorts. The question is whether the old boy’s club of astronomy will be open to the idea of the internet in their lives. I shall be watching very closely.

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