This is from Olivia Judson's blog.

January 13, 2009, 10:23 pm Guest Column: A New Kind of Big Science

*I'd like to introduce Aaron E. Hirsh, the first guest columnist for The
Wild Side during my sabbatical. Aaron is a biologist and writer based in
Colorado. He has a doctorate in Biological Sciences from Stanford
University, where he studied aspects of how molecules such as proteins
evolve. He has, for several years led a summer field course in Baja
California, Mexico, looking at the animals that live in the Sea of Cortez —
otherwise known as the Gulf of California. A book about his adventures
there, called "Telling Our Way to the Sea," will be published next year. He
is also a research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder.*

*Please welcome him.*

By Aaron E. Hirsh

Next summer, the Large Hadron
Europe's $9 billion investment in particle physics, will take a handful of
ions, hurl them through 17 miles of circular tunnel and smash them together
so hard they will shatter into the finest atomic shards anyone has ever
observed. And if all goes according to plan, the glints and flashes from
those shards will at last reveal the mysterious Higgs boson, the one
particle that endows all others with the property of mass.

For those of us who aren't particle physicists, that may sound awfully
exotic, not to mention exorbitantly expensive. But if we take a step back,
and view it in the broader context of contemporary science, the grand
project of particle physics seems suddenly not such a wild exception, but
rather a vivid example of a very broad trend: Across many different fields,
new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger
projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what
scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.

In physics, a slow drift toward centralization was given a sudden shove
during the Second World War — think Manhattan Project — so it is perhaps not
surprising that colliders today epitomize what historians have called "Big
Science." But a similar evolution is now evident in virtually every

When a crystallographer wants to determine the structure of a molecule, she
signs up for time at a big synchotron, which can generate the generate the
powerful X-rays she'll need. When a biologist wants the sequence of a
certain genome, he submits his proposal to a large sequencing center, where
armies of automated machines read their way in parallel through different
paragraphs of a genome's text. And when an ecologist wants to study the
effects of all that extra CO2 in the air, she'll turn to the very same
national labs that achieve particle smashing, Brookhaven and Oak Ridge,
which have built systems for manipulating the atmosphere over entire

It's not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who
are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of
far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the
21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators. Many of the
best-known scientists of our day are men and women exceptionally talented in
herding the resources — human and otherwise — required to plan, construct
and use big sophisticated facilities.

In a way, centralization seems unavoidable. The governments that fund
research have themselves become far more centralized, so perhaps science has
been pulled along in the process. But even without that prevailing wind,
science would, I think, head in the very same direction.

A young discipline is bound to move first through the data it can gather
most easily. And as it does, it also defines more exactly what it must
measure to test its theories. As the low-hanging fruit vanish, and the most
precious of fruits are spotted high above, bigger investments in harvesting
equipment become necessary. Centralization is a way to extend scientists'

But of course, there are also some drawbacks. There's something disturbingly
hierarchical about the new architecture of the scientific community: what
was before something like a network of small villages is today more like an
urban high-rise, with big offices at the top and a lot of cubicles down

The trouble with this is not just what it means for the folks in the
cubicles, but also that the entire business should rely so heavily on the
creativity and vision of relatively few managers. If the glassy office is
occupied by Einstein, that's great, but of course there's always a chance it
won't be. (Tellingly, this point was made to me by a friend who grew up in
the Soviet Union. "Trust me," he said, "centralization is risky.")

And then there's that problem of relating to Big Science when you're
standing outside the building, looking up. The difficulty is not just that
the research is recondite, but that the work is institutional, as opposed to
individual. After all, not many people really understood the paper on
general relativity, but many did connect with Einstein. Sure, we all pitch
in our tax dollars, but it's hard to feel a whole lot of personal
involvement in the search for the Higgs boson.

But if Big Science is what it takes to gather the truly precious data, what
are we to do?

There is another way to extend our scientific reach, and I believe it can
also restore some of what is lost in the process of centralization. It has
been called Citizen Science, and it involves the enlistment of large numbers
of relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific data. To
return to our architectural metaphor, if Big Science builds the high-rise
yet higher, Citizen Science extends outward the community of villages.

For me, an especially inspiring example of Citizen Science is the Audubon
Society's Christmas Bird Count. Every winter, from mid December to early
January, tens of thousands of intrepid hobbyists fan out across North
America, and together, they do their best to answer two basic questions: How
many birds are there? And what kinds?

It's a simple sort of data, to be sure, but it is nonetheless scientifically
invaluable. The CBC dataset now covers 109 years, and this remarkable
temporal extent, along with geographic range that spans the continent,
enables scientists to address questions that would otherwise be as
inaccessible as a Higgs boson. Just in the past few years, scientists have
used the CBC dataset to track the emergence and impact of West Nile virus,
to understand the ecological effects of competition between introduced
species and to measure the shift that birds make toward the poles in
response to global warming.

The CBC is surely a glowing exemplar, but there are many other cases of
Citizen Science in action. Even underwater, a snorkeling citizen can serve
science by taking down a few notes, which he'll enter into a website when he
returns to shore. The Internet is a natural medium for Citizen Science —
widely distributed yet highly organized, it's the ultimate network of
villages — and an initiative known as The Encyclopedia of Life has called
upon the world's hobbyists to contribute their sundry discoveries to a
Web-based library of species: one page per organism, featuring photos,
taxonomy, natural history, even ecology.

Of course, Citizen Science won't be very helpful in genome sequencing or
particle physics. But it will be helpful — indeed, perhaps essential — for
gathering a kind of data that will be increasingly important over the next
few decades. Widespread networks of observers are especially well-suited to
detecting global change — shifts in weather patterns; movements in the
ranges of species; large-scale transformations of eco-systems — and that,
unfortunately, is something we will need to know far more about if we are to
mitigate and adapt to the fateful effects we are having on the planet.

In the end, though, what may be most important about Citizen Science is what
it could mean for the relationship between citizens and science. When
everyone is gathering data, that rather austere and forbidding tower becomes
a shared human pursuit. In 1963, Alvin Weinberg, who was then the director
of Oak Ridge, likened Big Science to the greatest monuments civilizations
have ever built: the cathedrals of medieval Europe; the pyramids of Egypt.

But just as we build higher our temples of scientific investigation, so too
should we strengthen their foundations, and broaden their congregations.
Perhaps the new administration, which has already proven itself so skilled
in using the Internet to coordinate broad networks of volunteers, ought to
consider a national initiative in Citizen Science. It would provide us with
timely data, and it would make us better citizens.



*For comments and discussions, I'm grateful to many: D.G. Burnett, D. Hirsh,
O. Judson, J. Maximon, D.A. Petrov, B. Phelan, and V.H. Volny.*

*For more information on the CBC (or to sign up!) go
If you're a diver, check out REEF <>. If you happen to
have great photos of—or secrets about—an obscure species, visit The
Encylopedia of Life <>. And though it's not exactly
Citizen Science, you can volunteer your computer's idle time for processing
data from LHC:*

*A foundational book on the idea of Big Science is D.J. de Sola Price (1963)
"Little Science, Big Science." More recent views are collected in the volume
edited by P. Galison and B. Hevly (1992) "Big Science: The Growth of
Large-Scale Research." There are some terrific histories of early
incarnations of Citizen Science: K. Anderson (2005) "Predicting the
Weather"; M.S. Reidy (2008) "Tides of History"; and D.G. Burnett (2005)
"Matthew Fontaine Maury's Sea of Fire: Hydrography, Biogeography, and
Providence in the Tropics" in F. Driver and L. Martins (eds.) "Tropical
Visions in an Age of Empire." The internal trends that I suggest impel
centralization — early collection of accessible data and the development of
a clearer idea of especially valuable data — are documented in T.S. Kuhn's
classic essay, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions."*
*Here are three recent scientific papers that make use of data from the
Christmas Bird Count: F.A. La Sorte and F.R. Thompson III (2007) Poleward
shifts in winter ranges of North American Birds. Ecology 88: 1803-1812. C.B.
Cooper et al. (2007) "Contrasting natural experiments confirm competition
between house finches and house sparrows." Ecology 88: 864-870. Crosbie et
al. (2008) "Early impact of West Nile virus on the Yellow-Billed Magpie
(Pica nuttalli)" Auk 125: 542-550. While the quality of information gathered
by hobbyists is inevitably uneven, there are at least two ways to iron out
the inconsistency: Rely upon academic scientists to curate and select among
contributions from citizens, as the EoL has done. Or, as scientists using
the CBC have done, use the large dataset to control statistically for the
quirks of individual observers.*

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

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