Open source science

Open source science

Summary: In open source science the entire campus can share in the discovery process. It doesn't matter what your discipline is, you can find a role to play.

TOPICS: Open Source

Dr. Richard SmalleyMost science happens in silos. The chemists own the chemistry experiments, the biologists the biology experiments. It's like a collection of little, proprietary software enterprises, which don't share.

In open source science the entire campus can share in the discovery process. It doesn't matter what your discipline is, you can find a role to play. And when folks with different disciplines get together, breakthroughs can occur.

The man I consider the father of this open source science, Dr. Richard Smalley, died last week at age 62.

Dr. Smalley is probably best known for his 1996 Nobel Prize, won with Dr. Robert Curl and Dr. Harry Kroto for their discovery of Buckyballs, a form of carbon with 60 atoms arranged like a soccer ball. It was named for R. Buckminster Fuller, who spoke at Rice when I was an undergraduate there, some time before Smalley joined the faculty in 1976.

But I believe Smalley's biggest accomplishment is the Center for Nanoscale Technology and Science. Look at the wide-ranging disciplines of the faculty members. That's not just for show. The CNST has had several breakthroughs in recent years I attribute to just this structure.

Dr. Naomi Halas, an electrical engineer, has become a pioneer in gold nanoshells, which apply the basic structure of the Buckyball to a conductor. Bioengineers Jennifer West and Rebekah Drezek are applying gold nanoshells to cancer treatment. Chemist Jim Tour has developed the world's smallest car.

The point is by breaking down walls between disciplines, an open source method applied to science, amazing things can happen. Suddenly you have a lot of minds coming at problems from a lot of directions. It works. And it's going to transform science just as open source has transformed computing. Just as Dr. Smalley transformed my old school.

Topic: Open Source

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  • Its just amazing

    that the world's headlong dash to destruction can be thwarted by so few brilliant people. A million of P.T. Barnum's people have the same influence on the future as a single scientist. Makes me proud of my own (natural) science degree - I can hold off only a couple hundred of them though . . . ;)
    Roger Ramjet
  • I'm not sure I understand what you're saying

    I don't think your analogy with open source really holds up, as
    there is a long history of inter-disciplinary science (was
    Leonardo DaVinci confined to just one field of inquiry?). Science
    has always been, by it's very nature, open. In order to have any
    discovery or theory accepted, it must be published and peer
    reviewed. Most scientific journals have, as a requirement for
    publication, policies that the data and reagents used in the
    published works MUST be made publicly available (at least that's
    how it works in biology). If you expect to have your work
    accepted by the community, it must be repeatable by others, so
    withholding the code has never been an option.

    I would agree that recent years have seen a great increase in the
    interactions between disciplines, particularly as computing
    power has increased to the point where realistic modeling has
    become possible, not to mention the ability to handle large data
    tic swayback
    • Analogy didn't work with me either.

      I always saw science as an attempt at an open exchange. And the method of its' advancement is building upon the scientific knowledge of those before. That is very in keeping with the open source principle.

      In thinking about it that way, I pondered what should be considered closed source. It occurs to me that Microsoft and the Catholic Church have a lot in common. I'll leave others to piece together the similarities.
      • Closed Source

        Closed source is the way science works at large institutions. The various disciplines don't communicate effectively. Chemists talk to chemists, bio engineers to other bioengineers.

        This dramatically limits effectiveness, because science doesn't work that way. Knowledge sloshes over and around the artificial borders of most academies.

        Rice could create this new model because it's both small and rich. Small meant an inter-disciplinary team was the only way to create heft. Rich meant the people involved were all brilliant, among the best in their fields.
        • Arrogance and Dogma...

          ...Infect all established institutions. Science at least has some methods of moving past it eventually, if painfully. The open source movement is not immune.

          But I do get your point and agree. I don't want to take away from the accomplishments of Rice. Those who forge new ties are very important to the networking of information to better our understanding.
        • Yes and No

          Many fields of science, by their very nature, have focused on a
          reductionist approach for the last century. The idea in biology
          has been to reduce problems down to the level of individual
          molecules, to try to understand things on that level, then be able
          to move upward into more complex layers. As such, you've
          often ended up with scientists whose core knowledge is limited
          to a very small set of questions, intensely focused on one small
          aspect of one molecular interaction. The very reductionist
          nature of the last century of biology has made it difficult to think
          more in the big picture and incorporate things like physics and
          chemistry to the equation.

          But that has changed over the last decade. Biology is emerging
          from its reductionist roots and moving more towards a systems
          level approach. The growth in computing power has been the
          driving force for this, but if you look at any major research
          center, you'll see that there are becoming fewer distinctions
          between being a biologist, a chemist, or a physicist, as many are
          all working on the same research.

          I don't think Rice is unique in creating interdisciplinary
          approaches to science. This has always been the approach
          taken by those at the very top of their field, those with the
          freedom and funding to pursue "big" questions, rather than
          scrambling after the details that are so much easier to fund.
          Harvard has long had an interdisciplinary program, and labs like
          this one (biology, physics, chemistry, computer science) have
          long existed at places like MIT and CalTech:

          tic swayback
  • RE: Open source science

    I read books on quantum mechanics. I dont understand a word and I will keep reading until I have agood understanding of QM, them move on. I wish their was a list of symbols used in QM with a defination of the symbols. Sort of an ABC s of QM.
    Paul Rayer