By Jeffrey R. Young
From The Chronicle of Higher Education
Alexander S. Szalay is a well-regarded astronomer, but he hasn't peered through a telescope in nearly a decade. Instead, the professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University learned how to write software code, build computer servers, and stitch millions of digital telescope images into a sweeping panorama of the universe.
Along the way, thanks to a friendship with a prominent computer scientist, he helped reinvent the way astronomy is studied, guiding it from a largely solo pursuit to a discipline in which sharing is the norm.
One of the most difficult tasks has been changing attitudes to encourage large-scale collaborations. Not every astronomer has been happy to give up those solo telescope sessions. "To be alone with the universe is a very dramatic thing to do," admits Mr. Szalay, who spent years selling the idea of pooling telescope images online to his colleagues.
Today, data sharing in astronomy isn't just among professors. Amateurs are invited into the data sets through friendly Web interfaces, and a schoolteacher in Holland recently made a major discovery, of an unusual gas cloud that might help explain the life cycle of quasars—bright centers of distant galaxies—after spending part of her summer vacation gazing at the objects on her computer screen.
Crowd Science, as it might be called, is taking hold in several other disciplines, such as biology, and is rising rapidly in oceanography and a range of environmental sciences. "Crowdsourcing is a natural solution to many of the problems that scientists are dealing with that involve massive amounts of data," says Haym Hirsh, director of the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation...