Book Review

Florian Fisch

Michael Nielsen:
Reinventing Discovery. The New Era of Networked Science.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 3, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0691148902
ISBN-13: 978-0691148908
Price: 16.95 EUR

Dreaming the Complete Openness

Michael Nielsen, born in 1974, is one of the pioneers of quantum computing. The Australian scientist was a resident at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, at Caltech and at the University of Queensland.

Do you allow anyone to browse your lab book whenever they wish? Michael Nielsen wants you to do exactly that. Not convinced? He does have a case.

The science fiction action series Terminator shows a horrific vision of the world, one in which computers rule and try to eliminate human civilisation. The quantum physicist and science writer Michael Nielsen thinks of computer control in a more positive way. Nielsen has a dream that one day, “all scientific knowledge has been made available online, and is expressed in a way that can be understood by computers”. In his first book, Reinventing Discovery, Nielsen motivates scientists to revolutionise their trade by making their data available to everyone.

Speed up discovery

This brave new world of completely open science is supposed, “to speed up the rate of discovery” and, “amplify our collective intelligence”. By “open”, Nielsen does actually mean everything; open access and ahead of print publications, comprehensive online databases and freely available raw data, collaboration through online tools including open lab books, blogging scientists and crowd sourced citizen science.

You may say that Nielsen is a dreamer, but he is not the only one. Some have already joined him as he nicely illustrates with many examples. Science is already open and collaborative. We all know the Public Library of Science (PLoS), PubMed, UniProt, HapMap, Allan Brain Atlas and many more. Nielsen shows how some problems have been solved collaboratively and online. Take the online computer game Foldit (, where anyone can fold proteins and with a little perseverance will outperform supercomputers at predicting the correct fold from scratch. Nielsen also tells the story of a bunch of mathematicians, who solved a complex problem by means of a blog (the Polymath Project).

Designed serendipity

Nielsen’s book is an amazing collection of interesting examples, important protagonists and references. It makes illustrative comparisons to open source software development. With his easily readable, well explained and perfectly argued style, Nielsen manages to keep the reader interested in this rather dry philosophical topic throughout the whole book.

It all comes in two parts. In the first, Nielsen convincingly shows that the right online tools can favour serendipity and bring together the microexpertise of many unusual collaborators. There is, for instance, the chess game in which grandmaster Garry Kasparov had a hard time playing against the world (in this case, an online community) in 1999. In the second part, Nielsen shows why science is especially well suited to being conducted via open online collaboration. In Nielsen’s eyes, the main hurdle is most scientists’ single-minded focus on publications. As a consequence, he identifies a lack of recognition for other scientific contributions to blogs, wikis and online tool development.

Some serious limits

Nielsen has a convincing case. At the same time he is honest enough to admit that there are limits, including confidentiality, security and the particularities of the field of science. Take the squabbles over the validity of string theory for instance.

However, there are some areas on which Nielsen does not adequately expand. The physicist leaves out quality assurance, for example. Despite many criticisms of it, no better alternative to peer-review has yet been found. He barely mentions how incorrect, prematurely released data can be misused by fanatics. He talks about the culture of secrecy promoted by the drive for patenting at Universities, but does not stress that their content is published too and what their important role for attracting investment is in start-up companies.

Believing in technology

Nielsen’s vision reveals his belief in technology as a solution for everything. The physicist is biased towards theoretical projects, leaving out most of biology, medicine and chemistry. In large part he seems to confound information with knowledge and working for science with scientific work. For Nielsen, speed is everything and he therefore trivialises the fact that the current publication imperative already makes science open.

Nevertheless the book provides a comprehensive overview of developments in open science and is more than worth the reading time for someone interested in the foundations of science. Concerning Nielsen’s dream, the only way to judge its promises is to follow the physicist’s own recommendation: “Try out open science!”

Letzte Änderungen: 07.08.2013

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