Technology & Science·Audio

How the internet transforms scientific discovery

Internet users with no scientific training have helped discover a new type of galaxy and crack a problem in protein biochemistry that stumped experts, thanks to the power of the internet.
A screenshot from the game shows a puzzle involving the monkey virus protein. For 15 years, scientists had been trying to figure out how it was folded. Gamers solved the puzzle in just a few days. (Courtesy of Firas Khatib/University of Washington)

Internet users with no scientific training have helped discover a new type of galaxy and crack a problem in protein biochemistry that stumped experts, thanks to the power of the internet.

Networked science, also called open science, makes use of collaborative tools such as wikis, blogs, online databases, and games to tap the collective talents or intelligence of many people, including non-scientists — sometimes hundreds of thousands of them — in the pursuit of scientific discoveries.

"It's about the idea that we can use online tools to actually speed up the process of scientific discovery and really transform the way we make discoveries," said Michael Nieslen, author of the new book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

Nielsen spoke to CBC's Spark about about the success of the Galaxy Zoo website. It recruited 250,000 people to classify 150 million galaxies photographed by a robotic telescope, and ended up discovering an entirely new class of galaxy, known affectionately as "green peas."

"What an amazing thing to have done," he said, "[and] it was done by a group of amateurs."

Spark interview

In Spark's audio feature (listen by clicking the audio link at the top of this story), Nielsen discussed the potential of collaboration as well as some of the challenges to making it work.

Spark also spoke to two people immersed in collaborative scientific endeavours:

  • Seth Cooper, co-founder and lead designer of Foldit, a game in which players try to get the highest score possible by folding proteins into shapes that are optimal according to the laws of physics. In doing so, they combine human creativity with computers' computational power to crack difficult problems in biochemistry.
  • Anthony Philbin, president of meTracker, a program that allows people to work collaboratively with health care providers to monitor their health in real-time using shared, daily customized surveys about indicators such as their mood.