Science & Technology

The Return of Decentralized, DIY Science

Cheaper technology is transforming scientific institutions-and it's making it easier to operate outside them too.


Every year, Edge poses a new question to a collection of luminaries. This year's query: "What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news? What makes it important?"

They got 198 responses, some more compelling than others; you can browse them here. One of the more interesting replies came from the famed physicist Freeman Dyson, who noted one of the ways decentralized science has been taking on roles previously reserved for big institutions:

Cheap and sensitive, like an undergrad
University of Toronto

The Dragonfly Observatory is an array of ten sixteen-inch refractor telescopes arranged like the compound eye of an insect dragonfly. The refracting lenses are coated with optical surface layers designed to give them superb sensitivity to faint extended objects in the sky. For faint extended objects, the Dragonfly Observatory is about ten times more sensitive than the best large telescopes. The Dragonfly is also about a thousand times cheaper. The ten refractors cost together about a hundred thousand dollars, compared with a hundred million for a big telescope.

The Dragonfly Observatory recently finished a search for faint dwarf galaxies orbiting within the gravitational field of our own galaxy. About fifty dwarf companions to our galaxy were discovered, more than were expected from computer models of galactic evolution. Each dwarf galaxy is embedded in a halo of dark matter whose mass can be determined from the observed velocities of the visible stars. The dwarf galaxies have about a hundred times more dark mass than visible mass, compared with the ratio of ten to one between dark and visible mass in our own galaxy. The Dragonfly observations reveal a universe with an intense fine-structure of dark-matter clumps, much clumpier than the standard theory of big-bang cosmology had predicted.

So it happens that a cheap small observatory can make a big new discovery about the structure of the universe.

Amateur science
Gary Larson

Paul Saffo, a Stanford-based futurist, makes a similar point in his response to Edge. For "a few thousand dollars," he writes, amateur astronomers "can purchase digital cameras that were beyond the reach of observatories a decade ago"; they "will soon enjoy affordable technical means to match the Kepler spacecraft in planet-finding prowess." In another field, Saffo suggests we "imagine the science that is possible when sequencing a genome costs a dime and networked sequencing labs-on-a-chip are cheap enough to be tossed out and discarded like RFID tags."

There was a time, over a century ago, when most American science was conducted by amateurs and semi-pros. By the 20th century they were largely marginalized, but now we seem to be moving at least a little way back toward that older model. There is far more room for flexible, decentralized amateur science now; and many of the professionals, like the astronomers behind the Dragonfly project, are increadingly able to conduct their business in a more flexible and decentralized way too.

Bonus link: Earlier today, my colleague Ron Bailey blogged about DIY gene-editing.