Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: "Reinventing Discovery" by Michael Nielsen

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science
By Michael Nielsen
Princeton University Press (October 3, 2011)

Michael Nielsen is one of the founders of the field of quantum information and among the pioneers of quantum computation. I had some overlap with him at Perimeter Institute, where we organized a conference together. Michael resigned from his tenured faculty position in 2008 to dedicate his time to the future of science, to studying how it will work best in the era of rapid information exchange, high connectivity, and large capacity for data storage and handling. His book "Reinventing Discovery" is a careful argument, as much as a vision and a manifest.

For his book, Michael has collected a large number of examples how the new software and hardware is changing the way we do science, and the way scientists interact with each other and the public. He has probably looked at and studied many more examples than he wrote about. He has sorted these examples into tools that amplify collective intelligence by creating an "architecture of attention" for a community of practice and tools that integrate science into our societies, like open access, citizen science, and the generally improved exchange between scientists and the public. In each case, he has analyzed successes and failures, and draws conclusions from it, pointing out shortcomings and risks, and making suggestions for improvement.

It is impossible not to see the academic shine through the lines of the book. This isn't your typical popular science book, it's original research by a smart and dedicated scientist who spent a lot of time studying the facts and thinking about them. Michael's main point is that new tools allow us to use our knowledge much more efficiently, thus tapping upon a presently unused potential, and that this is a quiet revolution
"It's a slow revolution that has quietly been gathering steam for years. Indeed, it's a change that many scientists have missed or underestimated, being so focused on their own speciality that they don't appreciate just how broad-ranging the impact of new online-tools is."

Collective intelligence, Michael argues, works by bringing together many people's "microexpertise," that is a specialized knowledge in a specific area. New software can tell them when their microexpertise is needed and where and how they can add their contribution. To that end, it is preferable if problems are brought into a modular structure, so that parts can be tackled independently. Suitable tools, some of which already exist, then allow scientists to scale up collaborations, helping them solve problems much faster, wasting less time and effort. These are exciting developments for every scientist that promise to make scientific research smoother, faster and less frustrating.

Michael also covers many amazing examples of citizen science that are redefining the way science is integrated into our societies, which he believes taps on a large but still mostly unused potential:
"Cynics will say that most people aren't smart enough or interested enough to make a contribution to science. I believe that projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Foldit show those cynics are wrong. Most people are plenty smart enough to make a contribution to science, and many of them are interested. All that's lacking are tools that helo connect them to the scientific community in ways that let them make that contribution. Today, we can build those tools."

In his book, Michael doesn't merely summarize how online tools have changed science, but he also lays out a vision for the future, making a compelling case for just how big a different these developments can make. In the last chapters he addresses concerns and finally obstacles on the way to make his vision come true, most notably the collective action problem: Scientists have in the present system little incentives to contribute to open science or to share and discuss their ideas openly. Michael seems to find a top down approach (guidelines by founding agencies) to be most promising, but also has suggestions for little pragmatic steps that everybody individually, scientist or not, can take.

Michael's argument is so convincing indeed that I almost forgot my own reservations about open science. Good thing I write a blog. I agree with Michael on almost all points. Science is undergoing a dramatic change right now, and new software opens up new possibilities that have the potential to lead to a sudden and large knowledge gain, both for scientists as well as for the general public. My biggest concern is that too much exchange can actually be harmful to creativity and originality. To Michael's credit, he briefly addresses this point, saying that it's "serious but not insurmountable." Basically, he says, software needs to be smart so scientists can filter the information they receive. In principle that's true. But my concern is addressed by this as much as obesity is addressed by saying people can just buy less food.

That having been said, my point is essentially that the creation of any tool that is supposed to improve science should be informed by sociologists and psychologists likewise, and be continuously monitored in its effects, in a process that should be integrated into the system. We have a lot to lose. There are several other points in Michael's book that I don't entirely agree with; they might make fodder for more blogposts.

In any case, though I don't agree with Michael on everything, it is a brilliant book. Despite the many examples, it is reads well. With 200 pages, it's neither too long nor to short, and it has an extensive list of references. If you are interested in open science, Michael Nielsen's book is mandatory literature for you. If not, even more so! You should read this book if you're a scientist in the 21st century, or if you want to know how science in the 21st century works, or if you want to know why this is a relevant question to begin with. In short, you all should read Michael's book because he's right: We're on and about to reinvent discovery. And that reinvention will decide whether or not we'll be able to manage the problems that the future will bring.


  1. Good Review Bee....will have to look for the book.


  2. Hi Bee,

    Nice review which has me now curious what Dr. Nielsen has to say about the potentials regarding the networking of science. As I pointed out earlier, in relation to another review of yours which prompted me to read it, the author also noted that science being one of the few areas where collaboration has actually shown to have demonstrated to being successful. So it looks like I’ll have to load this one up into my e-reader as well. I would also advise you to contact Kobo to begin discussions regarding a potential commission arrangement;-)



    P.S. One thing to note as evident about Neilson, that is besides taking you word for it that he is brilliant, is he must also be bold as turning down a sure thing rather than sacrifice his dreams. It’s also sad to hear that Perimeter didn’t find his new focus as being consistent with its own vision.

  3. At where I work they are using crowd sourcing to generate ideas for new products, solutions to business problems, etc. and a reviewer with reliable good taste, Bee, has recommended this book, and so I download the Kindle book onto my iPad, let us see if it produces anything useful....

    Thanks, Bee!

  4. Collective intelligence threatens insular ivory towers. Phthalo Blue only dissolves in boiling concentrated sulfuric acid. Dissolving it in Plexiglass is madness! The insane process creating ceramic oxide dislocation-pinned nickel superalloys transforms intractable pigment into dye masterbatch.

    What sugar-coats intellectual outsourcing for administrative soft despotism? Given only BNC feed-throughs, all electrical problems are coaxial. How are extramural "AHA!" moments rewarded? A colorless transparent 80 wt-% water hydrogel, strong as silicone and refractive as Plexiglas, is copier belt monomers the other way. TRIZ and Genrich Altshuller, And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared. Survive the leaden prose then solve all problems. Every paragraph is insubordination toward hierarchal authority.

    Do opposite shoes violate the Equivalence Principle? Eotvos experiments with composition and field, Nordtvedt effect, pulsar-star binaries all fail. Physical chirality contradicts physics' founding postulates. It cannot work that way, as Bolyai broke Euclid's Fifth Postulate, Phthalo Blue dissolved in Plexiglas, and water became strong and refractive. A good idea need only be testable. It is believable afterward.

  5. It's a chimera in my opinion.

    Quite implausible taking into account the current structure of the economical an social model.

    In another world, where people won't have to work from 9 to 5 to make a living, they could find the time to explore the world and themselves.

    Now their mind doesn't have the time and space to breathe.

  6. And I just remembered the all times classic of the 80's "Somebody's Watching Me"

    I'm just an average man
    With an average life
    I work from nine to five
    Hey, hell, I pay the price
    All I want is to be left alone
    In my average home


    Tell that to Nielsen:-)

  7. Hi! There are some instances of "Micheal" that should be "Michael". Sorry for such a trivial comment!

  8. Hi Giotis,

    It might seem implausible to you, yet I think this is what is about to happen, and we are on the way already. We do need however smart mechanisms to integrate all these relations into our daily lives. Yes, that the day has only 24 hours and many people don't have the time to study and consider the vast amount of information that we have is exactly the problem that needs to be addressed. Best,


  9. Dear Arun,

    Does it work, in your opinion, the crowd-sourcing? Michael Nielsen in his book writes about how slow scientists are adapting new tools for science. But what is even more puzzling to me (and the book doesn't say anything about this) is that they seem to be even slower adapting new tools for administrating and just managing the overhead. I mean, I am thinking something simple like an "issue tracker" for an institute, or some sort of work-flow visualization. I mean using Google docs rather than sending around 20 versions of a file, I am thinking using mind maps or webinars etc. But using skype is as far as most of my colleagues will go. Best,


  10. Hi Phil,

    Well, I think PI would have profited very much from Michael. However, one thing that is also addressed in his book is that there exist presently a certain divide between scientists who do research, and who work on improving the process by which research is done. The first are the ones considered to do the real thing, and the latter are the lesser ones. That is a very unfortunate state of affairs. It's a problem much like many scientists don't make an effort communicating science to the public, because it's not "the real thing" and not valued by the researcher's peers. Best,


  11. Hi Bee,

    It’s apparent there still needs to be a lot of change to find Nielsen’s vision being realized which I think you for the most part share. On that note things like the Nobel Prize and the Fields medal still emphasis and appreciate exclusively individual effort and thus it’s obvious to me that more than our systems that’s needing revision, yet also it motivators respective of acknowledgement and reward. As such it will be interesting to discover if Nielsen addresses this in his book and thanks again for the heads up on what I’m certain will prove to be a most interesting read.



  12. Dear Bee,

    The way our system works is that employees post their ideas on a web site. There are two streams, one for customer-facing improvements and other for internal improvements. Others can comment or review or rate the ideas. Ideas must gather certain number of page views, comments, reviews, in certain timespan to remain viable. There is a complex scoring system based on all of the above that makes it non obvious about how to cheat. People can join as collaborators on an idea. One can buy or sell stock in the ideas. People get points for participating and for the value of their stock, and top participants get recognition and small prizes. Every quarter the top ten or dozen ideas in each stream get an opportunity to proceed further, culminating in the top few, with the help of some dedicated personnel, taking part in a present- to - venture capitalist like event with senior executives of the company, and if they pass, it results in a funded project.

    I have not seen any great breakthrough, and also there is rarely anything that no one has thought of before - though some patent applications have resulted. But usually in my opinion, how to make what was a pipedream into a workable idea is what emerges here.

  13. Dear Bee,
    I should also add that in participating in a company social media site, one is asked to first agree to adhere to professional code of behavior with penalties for violating it.
    So flame wars do not break out.

  14. Arun,

    It seems Ishikawa diagram may be of some use?

    Used in management and engineering, an Ishikawa diagram shows the factors that cause the effect. Smaller arrows connect the sub-causes to major causes. See: Causality

    Also some might be interested in format of a Journal Club? Not quite sure about this so was trying to follow up.


  15. Thanks, Plato, any new way of representing information, such as Ishikawa diagrams, is most welcome!

    Am not sure how a journal club would work in my environment, but that is also something I'll think about.

  16. Dear Arun,

    Sounds good to me. Is this a self-made software or is it proprietary? Best,


  17. Hi Bee,
    At its core, it may be something from here:

    I'm sure it has been customized intensively.


  18. Dear Bee,

    Dunno if you have New York Times access, but this crowd-sourced way of funding projects, Kickstarter, is interesting, and perhaps part of the theme about how the network enables all kinds of new resources.

    Quote: "The large amount of money that Pebble has raised — equivalent to what a young company would get in a second round of venture capital financing — also signifies a coming of age for Kickstarter.

    “This year marks the year that we’ve seen Kickstarter enter the real world in a number of ways,” said Perry Chen, one of its founders. “At Tribeca Film Fest, there are a dozen different Kickstarter-backed films, there’s an installation at the Whitney Biennial that was a Kickstarter project and we just had our birthday party at a Kickstarter-funded restaurant.”

    Much as the introduction of cheap Web services lowered the barrier to entry for people seeking to create a start-up, and as offshore manufacturing gave entrepreneurs a chance to make products without having to build a factory, Kickstarter offers budding entrepreneurs a way to float ideas and see if there’s a market for them before they trade ownership of their company for money from venture capitalists.

    Mr. Migicovsky and his partners did not have to give up any portion of their company to the venture capitalists. They still own 100 percent of it.

    “Kickstarter is already proving to be a viable alternative to starting a company the traditional way,” said David H. Hsu, an associate professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who studies entrepreneurship and innovation. "


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