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Reinventing Discovery

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science

Michael Nielsen
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Reinventing Discovery
    Book Description:

    InReinventing 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 Discoverytells 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3945-2
    Subjects: General Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. CHAPTER 1 Reinventing Discovery
    (pp. 1-12)

    Tim Gowers is not your typical blogger. A mathematician at Cambridge University, Gowers is a recipient of the highest honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal, often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics. His blog radiates mathematical ideas and insight.

    In January 2009, Gowers decided to use his blog to run a very unusual social experiment. He picked out an important and difficult unsolved mathematical problem, a problem he said he’d “love to solve.” But instead of attacking the problem on his own, or with a few close colleagues, he decided to attack the problem completely in the open, using his...


    • CHAPTER 2 Online Tools Make Us Smarter
      (pp. 15-21)

      In 1999, world chess champion Garry Kasparov played a game of chess against “the World.” In this event, organized by Microsoft, the idea was that anyone in the world could go to the game website, and vote on what move should be taken next. On a typical move more than 5,000 people voted, and over the entire game 50,000 people from 75 countries voted. The World Team decided on a new move every 24 hours, and on any given turn the move taken was whichever got the most votes. The game was billed as “Kasparov versus the World.”

      The game...

    • CHAPTER 3 Restructuring Expert Attention
      (pp. 22-43)

      In 2003, a young woman named Nita Umashankar, from Tucson, Arizona, went to live for a year in India, where she worked with a not-for-profit organization to help sex workers escape the sex trade. What she found in India frustrated her. Many of the sex workers had so few skills that it was almost impossible to help them find jobs outside prostitution. Returning to the United States, Umashankar decided she would start a not-for-profit organization that addressed the core problem, by training at-risk Indian girls in technology, and then helping them find jobs with technology companies.

      Eight years later, the...

    • CHAPTER 4 Patterns of Online Collaboration
      (pp. 44-68)

      On August 26, 1991, at 2:12 am, a 21-year-old Finnish programming student named Linus Torvalds posted a short note to an online forum for programmers. It read, in part:

      I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones . . . I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-)

      Just 14 minutes later, another user responded with the words “Tell us more!” and asked several questions. Nearly six weeks later, on October 5, Torvalds posted...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Limits and the Potential of Collective Intelligence
      (pp. 69-88)

      Collective intelligence is not a problem-solving panacea. In this chapter we’ll identify a fundamental criterion that divides problems where collective intelligence can be applied from problems where it cannot. We’ll then use that criterion to understand why scientific problems are especially well suited for attack by collective intelligence. To understand the criterion, let’s first turn to an experiment done in 1985 by the psychologists Garold Stasser and William Titus. What Stasser and Titus showed is that groups discussing a certain type of problem—a political decision—often do surprisingly badly at using all the information they possess. This perhaps doesn’t...


    • CHAPTER 6 All the World’s Knowledge
      (pp. 91-128)

      Don Swanson seems an unlikely person to make medical discoveries. A retired but still active information scientist at the University of Chicago, Swanson has no medical training, does no medical experiments, and has never had a laboratory. Despite this, he’s made several significant medical discoveries. One of the earliest was in 1988, when he investigated migraine headaches, and discovered evidence suggesting that migraines are caused by magnesium deficiency. At the time the idea was a surprise to other scientists studying migraines, but Swanson’s idea was subsequently tested and confirmed in multiple therapeutic trials by traditional medical groups.

      How is it...

    • CHAPTER 7 Democratizing Science
      (pp. 129-171)

      On August 7, 2007, a 25-year-old Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny van Arkel was surfing the web when she came across the Galaxy Zoo website. As you may recall from the opening chapter, Galaxy Zoo recruits volunteers to help classify galaxy images. The volunteers are shown photographs of galaxies—often, galaxies no human has ever before seen—and asked to answer questions such as “Is this a spiral or an elliptical galaxy?” or “If this is a spiral, do the arms rotate clockwise or anticlockwise?” It’s a kind of cosmological census, the largest ever undertaken, with more than 200,000 volunteers so...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Challenge of Doing Science in the Open
      (pp. 172-186)

      Late in the year 1609, Galileo Galilei pointed one of his newly built telescopes up at the night sky and began to make one of the most astonishing series of discoveries in the history of science. Galileo’s first major discovery, made in January of 1610, was of the four largest moons of Jupiter. Today, this discovery perhaps seems unremarkable, but it caused the biggest change to our conception of the universe since ancient times. The discovery became a sensation, and Galileo was feted throughout Europe. It also brought him the patronage of one of the wealthiest men in Europe, the...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Open Science Imperative
      (pp. 187-208)

      Imagine you’re a working scientist who believes wholeheartedly that open science will bring enormous benefits to science and to our society. You understand that changing the deeply entrenched culture of science will be difficult, but decide nonetheless to go all out sharing your ideas and data online, contributing to new tools such as science wikis and user-contributed comment sites, and making the code for your computer programs freely available. All this takes a great deal of time and effort, and yet you find that without colleagues willing to reciprocate, the benefits to you are small. That’s because many of the...

  4. Appendix: The Problem Solved by the Polymath Project
    (pp. 209-214)
  5. Selected Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading
    (pp. 217-220)