Of telescopes, patents and the death of discovery

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."--Isaac Newton.
Written by Jeremy Allison, Contributor on

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." --Isaac Newton.

[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my current employer.]

It isn't really a surprise that I ended up in the computing field. I started in astronomy. As a small child I used to lie outside on my back on top of the crisp crust of snow on my parent's lawn in Sheffield in the UK. Dressed in a fluffy parka, wellington boots, gloves, and a pair of binoculars; I never noticed the cold back in 'them days'. I was too busy looking out at the universe, trying to discover something new.

Like so many other amateur astronomers in the UK, I was inspired by Sir Patrick Moore, host of the BBC's “the Sky at Night” television programme. Amazingly, Sir Patrick is still presenting the show today, being its original creator and only host since 1957. I gave up astronomy once I tried to make a career of it by starting a PhD, and found that professional astronomy is incredibly boring. I ran away to join a software house, and never looked back. Occasionally I still miss those peaceful nights of my youth, but working on software is much warmer.

The similarity between the two is that astronomy, like computing, is one of the few fields of science where amateurs can still make a difference. There is so much that is unknown and undiscovered out there that even though an amateur isn't going to discover a new planet, it's perfectly possible for a talented observer to be the first to spot a new comet, or even a supernova. Even with a modest investment in equipment, an amateur can perform useful tasks, and help make discoveries that genuinely advance the science.

Computing science is like that too. You don't need to create the world's largest or fastest supercomputer in order to do useful research and create new algorithms or programs on which others can build. The universe may or may not be infinite, but the field of mathematics, on which computing is based, definitely is. That feeling of power in discovering that here was an infinite universe of software and mathematics, living right inside the computer on my desktop, was the key to my new career. I've never gotten bored with creating software and I don't believe I ever will. It's still my amateur hobby, as well as my paying career.

Of course, another advantage to computing that I found out pretty quickly is that talented amateurs don't stay amateurs for long. There is a far greater market for computer scientists than there is for astronomers, and there's more money in it too, although I wish that were different. Astronomers are horribly undervalued in monetary terms if you consider the spark of imagination for science and discovery they bring to young people in our culture.

Creating new software is an exploration of inner, rather than outer space. But it's just as compelling to anyone with the talent and inclination. Like amateur astronomy, amateur computing science is just plain fun. Actually, it's more fun for the amateur than astronomy. The price of telescopes really haven't changed so much over many decades. Large pieces of glass as mirrors or lenses are heavy and hard to make. But computers, disk drives and networking equipment just get cheaper and cheaper.

Even multi-core processors and parallel processing on gigabit networked machines is now easily within the budget of the motivated hobbyist, so what was once the preserve of IBM researchers is now available on the desktop, and probably soon within throw-away devices as well. Once unimaginable sizes of disk drives are now a commodity. My first hard drive was 20 megabytes. I recently bought on a whim a one-terabyte drive for my desktop PC. Think of the advances in file system storage software needed to effectively make use of and manage that space. Managing a terabyte of storage was once a research project thought to be in the realms of fantasy, it was such a large amount so space.

Computing science is new enough that there may be easy discoveries still within the reach of talented amateurs. This is not solely a rich countries game as so much of science can be (think of the entry costs of particle physics for example). Even developing countries can afford computing labs that can compete with the first world. All you need are cheap PC's and brainpower, and no one has a monopoly on that.

Having bemoaned the fate of the poor astronomers I do envy them one thing. A great advantage that astronomers have over computer scientists is that they don't have to deal with the insane concept of patents in their field of research. Regular readers will know I consider software patenting a dangerously stupid idea, with the potential to bring any progress in the field to a grinding halt.

What makes this especially damaging is the rapid progress of computer hardware I mention above. What was initially the preserve of professional researcher rapidly becomes mass-market, then obsolete. This means the people who get initial access to a class of hardware can lock up the field of software that runs on those machines completely using patents, prohibiting the natural progress of research described by Newton in the quote above. Had software patents been available when the first parallel computers were created the software to run them would be the subject of endless litigation and restriction, not freely available to everyone in the Free and Open Source software of today.

What innovations are we stifling right now with patents that lock out the scientists, amateur and professional, from research? What new software can't be created due to these restrictions. We may never know what we didn't discover or create due to their chilling effects.

It's like people claiming ownership on particular areas of the sky, and just as absurd. “You can't look at that star, it's mine, I patented looking there. Here's a coin-operated telescope if you want to peek”. Good luck making scientific progress in astronomy with these restrictions.

I'll finish with this wonderful quote that re-phrases Newton for this modern, patent-crazy age :

“If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.” -- MIT professor Hal Abelson.

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