December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Map of scientific collaborations

Guest contributor Julie Gould celebrates the Internet’s Golden Jubilee.

There have been significant leaps in our understanding of science and technology in the last fifty years. Some have radically changed our world, such as our sending a man into space and the silicon chip. However, one tool above all has become invaluable in our everyday lives: the internet. What is particularly fascinating about this invention is how it is changing the way science is being done.

The internet started out in the 1960s. In 1962, a network known as ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was set up as a way of connecting a group of American Universities and the American government. By 1969, only four computers were connected up to the internet, but as time went on – and with more computers wanting to join the network – it was becoming a problem to connect them all up.

It was only in the 1980s that scientists at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, developed the World Wide Web. This was initially meant to be a way of improving internal communications at CERN, and to allow for a faster transfer of information between individual computers on a much larger scale. Its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, described the World Wide Web as a “project [that] aims to allow all links to be made to any information anywhere[…] The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation”.

On 6 August 1991 the World Wide Web was launched across the internet. It allowed access to information anywhere in the world at just the click of a button, connecting scientists from all continents and increasing collaborative research and advancing science on a vast scale. Overall, the internet can be seen as a collaborative project that is continually evolving as time goes on. It is changing the way science is done, not only by improving communications between scientists, but by extending those with the public. It has endless applications in an era of rapid information exchange and high connectivity, and displays a large capacity for data storage and handling.

This high-speed international information-sharing has enabled researchers to collaborate with colleagues and experts in their field across the globe. Compare this to the birth of modern science in the 17th Century, when it was almost impossible to work with those in a different town or country, let alone another continent. The exchange of information was painfully slow. Now the internet enables scientists to spread their ideas further and faster and to communicate and exchange theories with those who have interests similar to their own across all seven continents.

An excellent example of this is the Polymath Project, first set up by Tim Gowers in January 2009. Gowers encountered a mathematical problem that he could not solve on his own. Instead, he posted the question on his personal blog, opening it up to his readers to see if they could collaboratively find a solution. Within 37 days, a group of 27 people had left over 800 related comments in an attempt to solve this problem. This group contained a broad mix of people, including teachers and research mathematicians. By bringing together the particular strengths of each individual, the group managed to find a solution. Two heads are better than one, and 27 heads are better than two.

The internet also acts as an enormous online data store. Projects such as GenBank, an online database run by the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, have combined the specific expertise of biologists from all over the world to aid scientific discovery. GenBank houses all the human genetic information discovered since it first started. By requiring scientists to immediately upload any new genetic codes that they find, the world has worked in collaboration to define the complete human genome. On top of this, the database is accessible to the public, so anyone with an interest in human genetics can view this research. By allowing anyone to download the human genome map, anyone can analyse it – and potentially discover something new.

This type of research is becoming increasingly popular. By giving scientists the opportunity to engage with the public, they are working with many who do not always have the capability of studying the science, but who still have an active interest in it. Similar databases have been set up for mapping the universe, climate change and many other scientific areas, utilising the concept of ‘citizen science’. Citizen science projects – in which amateurs, or non-professional citizens, contribute to scientific research in large numbers – are springing up everywhere, allowing huge amounts of data to be collected and analysed.

One example of this is Galaxy Zoo, a project launched in 2007 by Kevin Schawinski and colleagues from Oxford University to enable mass classification of galaxies from Hubble telescope images. The website shows volunteers a number of digital photographs of galaxies, and asks them to determine whether the galaxy is spiral or elliptical. If it is a spiral galaxy, it then asks volunteers to determine which way it is rotating, and various other characteristics. This helps to clarify that the internet is aiding science itself, not just scientists, by allowing this mass collaboration and data-sharing. Some astonishing discoveries have been made by many of the 200,000 volunteers that have signed up to Galaxy Zoo. More than 20 academic papers have been published through the combined efforts of the scientists and the public. Pea galaxies and quasar mirrors are amongst some of the more famous discoveries, most of which were initially spotted by non-professional scientists.

The things Galaxy Zoo has achieved would never have been possible if it were only algorithms, or a few professional researchers filtering through the photographs. And the combined power of thousands speeds up the process immeasurably. The internet is changing what the word ‘science’ actually means: it is no longer necessary to be a professional researcher to get involved in science and contribute. Anybody who has an inquisitive mind and an active interest in a specific subject can become part of projects such as Galaxy Zoo.

What will the internet bring next? It will continue to alter the way science is being done. More recently, debates have sparked up about open-access publishing, in which all data is made publicly available for anyone to see. Of course there will always be pros and cons regarding such a controversial argument. By combining and amplifying intelligence, the internet has helped make some amazing discoveries which would not have happened had it not been invented. It provides optimism and opportunities for science which would never have been possible otherwise. Long live the Internet.

Image: Olivier H. Beauchesne