Note: This article has a coda about the CERN neutrino results, which came out while I was writing it.
Two seemingly disparate but actually related items came up in the news recently. One was the discovery of a planet circling a close binary star system given the placeholder name of Kepler 16. The other was the publication of a viral protein’s crystal structure.
What, I hear you ask, do these have in common? Well, for one both projects used crowdsourcing (now going by the PR-friendly term “citizen science”). The other commonality was the anti-scientist hype: the media trumpeted gleefully that non-scientists are more prescient and clever than scientists. In contrast to plodding experts, prophetic film directors (“OMG, Tatooine!”) and intrepid gamers simply vault over obstacles and gracefully yet squarely hit the target. Kinda like Luke Skywalker homing on the tiny dot of vulnerability in the planet-sized Death Star with little flying experience and eyes wide shut because, ya know, the Force is with him.
Let’s parse the circumbinary planet first. Close to half the stars are in binary configurations, and about half of these have accretion disks. Hence, the likelihood of planets in such systems is very high. Astrophysicists’ models have shown that a planet can stably orbit either around one member of a widely separated pair or around a very tight pair. The first discovery of a planet circling a close binary dates from 1993 (or 2003, if one counts the final confirmation of the original observation). What makes the Kepler 16 system a first is that its planet appears to be smaller than Jupiter. As for prescience, beyond the astrophysicists’ theoretical calculations, Isaac Asimov had written Nightfall and Chesley Bonestell had painted Double Star long before Tatooine was even a solitary neuronal firing in George Lucas’ brain.
So now on to the crystal structure that “had stumped scientists for years but was solved by gamers in a few days”. To begin with, this was not the first crowdsourcing scientific project as touted. The honors for that must go to SETI@home, launched in 1997. There have been many others since, across disciplines. Beyond that, the people in the protein folding contest used a program developed by scientists (FoldIt) and half of the dozen or so participating “gamers” were biologists themselves. Crucially, they were given NMR and X-ray diffraction data to constrain and guide their steps. Finally, the result (a model, which means it’s still hypothetical) primarily aided crystallographers in placing heavy metal elements so as to get well-formed crystals, whose X-ray patterns gave the real, definitive proof of the structure.
Parenthetically, protein folding is a topic of perennial fascination to both creationists and believers in the strong anthropic principle. Many non-biologists, including physicists who blithely delve into biology in popsci books, are fond of intoning ad nauseam that amino acid strings would take billyuns and billyuns of years to fold correctly – hence god/intelligent design/a privileged universe/fine tuning of constants. In fact, with one exception that I can think of, proteins that have been unraveled into amino acid strings never re/fold at all (nor do they fold efficiently or correctly in programs like Rosetta, that presume complete lack of folding). Proteins fold as they get made, while they emerge from the ribosome. So they fold locally to achieve partial energy minima (so-called secondary structure) and these partly folded structures quickly coalesce into the final tertiary structure. On the technical side, making protein crystals is a difficult, delicate art – the biological equivalent of glass blowing. Like coaxing cells into growing, it’s part craft, part experience-based knowledge so deep that it becomes instinct.
Involving many people in parsing scientific data is a tremendous idea: it gets non-scientists familiar with the concepts, process and vocabulary of science, it can accelerate portions of the analysis, and it helps forge a sense of collective purpose and achievement. The great success of crowdsourcing highlights the unique human ability to notice anomalies instead of undeviatingly following protocols as computers do. This human attribute, not so incidentally, is one of the strongest arguments for sending crewed exploration teams to places like Mars.
At the same time, scientists are not stodgy techs in lab coats (whose wearing is almost entirely confined to movies; in real life, MDs are far likelier to sport such togs). To be a good scientist, let alone a great one, you must possess not only knowledge, rigor and stamina but also imagination and the informed, trained intuition that enables you to recognize patterns as well as deviations from them (aka “the prepared mind”). And distributed data churning won’t replace trained experimentation and thinking any time soon – or later.
Anglo-Saxon cultures have a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of it is the lingering mystique of the British gentleman dilettante; some is the American obsession with self-determination. Yet the same people who treat scientists like class enemies and jeer at their painstaking mindsets and work habits follow woo gurus – from homeopaths to investment advisors to Teabagger televangelists – with unsurprising outcomes.
If people really think that they can do science better than trained scientists, I invite them to apply this reasoning to other domains and have the next person they meet on the street do their root canals or wire their house for electricity. Those who participate in citizen science are praiseworthy, citizens in the full sense of the word. Nothing but good can come from the practice – except for the demagogic triumphalism of those journalists whose self-satisfied ignorance vitiates every hard-won gain achieved by the scientist/layperson partnerships.
It’s a natural human reaction to ridicule what one fears and/or doesn’t understand, though adults are supposed to mature beyond this juvenile tendency. The question then becomes why science, whose record is far better than that of just about any other human endeavor, has become a bugaboo rather than a vision and an integral part of this culture. It’s a question well worth remembering when all the GOP presidential candidates fall all over themselves to deny evolution – and one of them might lead what is still struggling to remain the most powerful country on this planet.
[Click on this image to see legible larger version]
Coda: The news that CERN’s OPERA project recorded anomalous results of neutrino speeds got its share of “Roll over, Einstein” smartass quotes although, thankfully, the hype didn’t reach the proportions of NASA’s “arsenic” bacteria. Neutrinos are literally the changelings of the particle clan but the claim is far from proven and the paper has still not been peer-reviewed.
If it proves true, it won’t give us hyperdrives nor invalidate relativity. What it will do is place relativity in an even larger frame, as Eisteinian theory did to its Newtonian counterpart. It may also (finally!) give us a way to experimentally test string theory… and, just maybe, open the path to creating a fast information transmitter like the Hainish ansible, proving that “soft” SF writers like Le Guin may be better predictors of the future than the sciency practitioners of “hard” SF.
Images: 1st, Double Star by Chesley Bonestell (used as a Life cover in 1954); 2nd, a schematic of a protein structure; 3rd, Neutrinos by ever-sharp xkcd.