Science

The Return of Decentralized, DIY Science

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

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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.

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  1. About fifty dwarf companions to our galaxy were discovered

    Has anyone moved in to any of those yet, because…

    1. OT: I’m posting this at the top of a story so people will see it.

      Does anyone have contact with Almanian ?

      Couple weeks ago he posted a comment about needing chemo and then disappeared. I can only assume he’s battling cancer.

      1. Oh no, I wasn’t aware of that and come to think of it, I haven’t seen him here for a while that I can remember.

      2. Fuck. Good luck to him, even if he is from Michigan.

      3. He and I are friends on FB. He has up and down days, but he’s been overall cheerful, enthusiastic, and his usual articulate self.

        1. Let him know his absence has been noticed. And prayers for a recovery soon.

          1. Absolutely. And I’m sure he knows.

            1. Me too, if he doesn’t mind some obscure midwestern Methodist praying for him.

  2. I thought “dwarf” had gone the path of “midget” and we now called them “little people”.

  3. Oh, bravo on the alt-text.

    1. I came back here to say this. Alt-text was superb.

  4. 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[…]

    Hogwash. Everybody knows full well that the only true science is based on government-funded institution which results in science that conforms with the values emanated from the People’s revolution.

    1. The science is settled!

      1. The science is settled!

        …. like sludge in a sewage treatment plant.

    2. +1 eco-socialist agriculture

    3. Hogwash. Everybody knows full well that the only true science is based on government-funded institution which results in science that conforms with the values emanated from the People’s revolution.

      Scientific research financed through contributions by rich fat cats and greedy corporayshuns has no integrity. The only way to know that your data is pure and true is to recruit your investors at gun point and kill or kidnap them if they don’t pay up, that way you know you’re doing science that is in demand and is important.

      1. See, that money is laundered real nice by the time it gets to the government science agencies.

    4. Interesting that I saw on the news yesterday that some government panel of experts had issued new guidelines on how often women should get breast-cancer screenings and immediately after the report the news anchor turned to the resident healthcare expert for her opinion – and the resident healthcare expert said the new guidelines were appalling bad advice, women needed to get checked earlier and more often.

      I don’t know if it’s the biggest science news of the year, but the increasing awareness of the irreproducibility of so many studies and the idea that so much of the “new studies show” is so much BS is a story that gives me some hope. I actually saw a Reuters story with a subhed of “New Study May Suggest…”. “May” and “suggest” both – maybe they ain’t buying and selling the hype quite so quick.

      1. There are so many conflicting results in research these days that it’s apparent you can get whatever result you want out of research by just inputting the correct data and expecting a certain result.

        Just the other day I read ‘red wine bad for you after all, researchers find’. Whatever, I just did some research that found garbage smells good to pigs.

        You should see some of research being funded by the government these days. It’s overly apparent to a comical degree that the government will fund anything. Want to do some research of the relationship between gay men who self identify as walruses in Polynesia and the price of condoms in sub Saharan Africa? You can get a grant for that if you have the right connections.

        1. You can get whatever result you want out of research by inputting the correct data and being slightly less than rigorous with the statistics.

          That is why Bailey is right, science isn’t getting better until open data is required for all publications.

      2. Emerging Science Suggests that X May be useful in Certain conditions (Consult your DOCTOR before starting any regime, these results have nor ben FDA approved YMMV)
        That’s how you say it

        1. or Squirrels, not been

    5. What would a vacuum cleaner guy know about it?

      1. “Old.Mexican, you magnificent bastard! I read your blog!”

  5. the ways decentralized science has been taking on roles previously reserved for big institutions

    And the sad news? The government IS going to fuck all of this up. It’s not a question of if, but when.

    Big institutions do not want you playing around with ‘dangerous’ research, and big government is going to send Vinnie and Guido down to break your knees if you don’t stop it, for your own good.

    1. Nobody needs ten 16-inch refractor telescopes. These deadly assault telescopes are not what the founders intended…

      1. +1 scary black optical device

        1. And I think we can all agree that there is simply no civilian purpose for a telescope with an equatorial mount. We need to prevent terrorists from obtaining this technology, for the children.

          1. Congress has to do something!

            1. I’m sure we’ve all seen the news reports of gangs of youths, out late at night, looking through telescopes. Now, I’ve tried working with Congress on this. But the republicans, along with their lobbyists in the NTA, have blocked every Astronomy Control initiative I have proposed. That’s why my administration will be taking executive action to stop this scourge.

              1. + 1 year left

    2. “The government IS going to fuck all of this up. It’s not a question of if, but when.”

      How?

      1. He answered that before you asked, if you bothered to read.

        Big institutions do not want you playing around with ‘dangerous’ research, and big government is going to send Vinnie and Guido down to break your knees if you don’t stop it, for your own good.

        1. That’s not an answer, that’s a fantasy.

          1. No it’s an answer you disagree with. I know for a guy like yourself, that distinction is entirely lost.

          2. Tell that to 23 and Me…. and they just wanted to give simple data, not even change anything.

            1. Any type of writing that contains such things as sarcasm or metaphors flies right the fuck over Cyto’s head, which is apparently a very short diversion of course. If you want him to understand what you mean, you have to put it in very simple and direct terms. Sort of like you would with a 5 year old.

  6. 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.

    Well, there goes the neighborhood.

      1. But he has dark matter friends!

        1. He only has those to prove how liberal he is!

  7. The most interesting recent scientific news is that there’s been a big climate deal! Duh! Give Obama another Nobel Prize already!

  8. No one responded to my take on the Oculus Rift rollout this morning. You cannot buy one just yet, but you can pre-order one.

    I want the porn first, of course, But I only have some much to offer on that. Tricked-out, deep-slope virtual skiing would be my next buy.

    1. Here’s a response. Fuck the derpbook device. Wait for the HTC Vive, it will be superior in every way and it won’t have a Zuckerberg fucking up whatever potential it would have otherwise had.

      I can just see it, derpbook rift loaded with software that blocks it from use with any source other than watching facebook videos. So you get to watch people acting stupid and their dogs. It will be like a perpetual episode of Jerry Springer live in your living room. No thanks.

      1. QFT. I can’t wait for FB to implode as a company.

        1. I’m still surprised someone like Bittorrent hasn’t developed a decent P2P social networking solution.

      2. As much as I like Valve, the weak link here is HTC. They’re not bad, but they do have problems, chief of which is surviving as a company.

        Still, once the Infinadeck is ready for prime time, you’ll have the perfect starter holodeck.

    2. Yeah, I have been looking at competing products as well. I haven’t purchased one yet. That the Rift was funded by Zucky is a negative to me also. I don’t want to fork over $600 for captured product that might require a Facebook account

      1. I’ve done a fair amount of research on it, as I want one of them thar thingies. HTC Vive is receiving by far the most positive reviews by techno geeks and gamers. Besides having the best specs, it comes with spatial detectors that you can mount in a room and handheld sensors. So you can walk around with it in a virtual space and experience a full 3D VR environment. As far as gaming is concerned, if that’s what you want it for, it’s backed by Valve, what else needs to be said?

        1. Valve has been meandering lately. Their weird quasi-console thing and controller thing look kinda lame. The Vive is an excellent initiative but I’m really only interested if I can walk without a controller, like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3vHv4lNvg4

          1. There’s one company that has an awesome looking multi-directional treadmill thing, you can even sit down while using it because you’re tethered to a frame, which also prevents you from falling off it and breaking your head. I forget the name, but you can find it on kickstarter.

          2. Valve wants to make headway into the living room space, by giving living room users the perks of PCs (backwards compatibility; massive library of games to buy — or, if you’re a long time PC gamer, which you already own; cutting edge hardware) to offset what will inevitably be a higher price tag. The Steam Controller is part of that initiative.

            I do like the controller — it isn’t necessarily the best at being a replacement for an Xbox controller, but there is a lot of customizability, so it can do a decent job with game types that sort of suck for controllers. The touchpads can mimic joysticks, buttons, trackballs, or mice, and can change mode using other buttons. E.g., using one grip button can change the touchpad from a view-controlling joystick to a mouse that can only move around in the minimap; the other can change it to popup window that contains a number of less-used commands. You can just download popular configs through the steam client.

            It’s also wireless, unlike Xbox controller on PC (unless they’ve changed that recently).

        2. Hook that bad boy up to an interactive flesh light….

  9. “What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news?”

    Obama’s tasking Biden to cure cancer, DUH!

  10. Iran’s Swift Release of US Sailors Hailed as a Sign of Warmer Relations
    – New York Times

    Similarly

    “ISIS Now Beheading Victims After Back-Of-Head Shooting Executions in Sign of Open-ness to Compromise”
    “North Korea Promises Imperialist West Will Drown in “Very Large Lake” of Fire Rather than “Sea””
    “Boko Haram Now “Speed Dating” Female Captives in Sign of Softening Trend”

    1. Smart, sensible, baby steps foreign policy.

    2. I thought it was a sign that Iran wants the impending handing over of 100B to go through without a hitch.

      I imagine that if this had happened after they got their money we would be in the middle of another ‘hostage crisis’.

    3. What a Debbie Downer. You just want Rand Paul to lose! #libertarianforeignpolicymoment

    4. US thanks Iran for swift release of 10 Navy sailors
      – BBC

      Similarly

      “Israel compliments Hamas on more environmentally-friendly rocket designs”
      “Rapist noted as “great cuddler” and “considerate”, offering to dry-clean bloodstained clothing”
      “Soviet Gulags rated ‘most effective weightloss program’ of 20th century”

      1. Swift, boat, Kerry …. complete! Have these Iranians no decency left? Must they insult our noble SecState and his Prince of Lightness?

        1. “Have these Iranians no decency left?”

          I think their choice to publish photos of the captured soldiers was extraordinarily generous of them…

          even though its generally considered a diplomatic no-no, and piss-in-the-face to use other country’s service-people as props for domestic media propaganda.

          I suppose we should congratulate them on their hospitality

    5. “North Korea Promises Imperialist West Will Drown in “Very Large Lake” of Fire Rather than “Sea””

      I laughed out loud.

    6. Are those similar? US sailors drifted into a hostile nation’s recognized waters. It was an accident. They were held, without mistreatment (so far as I have heard) until it was verified that it was an accident, and then they were released the next day. I can’t actually see how it could have gone better between two states in a cold war.

  11. Plasma wakefield accelerators are another technology where small systems can approximate and even beat old Big Iron infrastructure accelerators. Expect some iteration of that tech to give CERN run for money, for far less money, sometime in the next decade or so.

    1. One day, people will scoff at how big and costly our “primitive” particle accelerators used to be. Though it’s surprising how much science they were able to do with simple ionized gas chambers back in the day.

      1. We should do what the Guide ends up doing: simulate the entire universe, then research the simulation. That way you don’t have to bother with all that hitchhiking crap.

        1. simulate the entire universe

          Would need a computer about as complex as the universe itself, so you spend all that time and resources and you’re back at a less accurate version of square one.

          1. See, you get out more than you put in because you’re simulating the computer that simulates the universe. And in that universe-simulating simulated computer is a simulated computer simulating the universe. With infinite recursions you end up with infinite computing power and thus simulating the universe is in fact free.

            /notinfactacompscimajor

            1. I see no conflicts with the laws of nature there. Sounds legit.

            2. There are some interesting paradoxes about total bits in universe vs. quantum computer computing ‘infinite’ quantum bits. If quantum computers work way theory describes, they are ‘computing’ with more bits than in known universe, implying multiple parallel universes the quantum computer is somehow utilizing for the needed bits.

              So in (wildly) theoretical perspective, a universal simulator is remotely possible; at least for ‘our’ universe.

          2. Pff, they do it 100% accurately with global climate today. Full speed ahead.

            1. We’ll need to take a vote to test the veracity of your theory.

              1. Consensus means fact. The Party has spoken.

        2. I’ve always wondered if the expensive colliders were really necessary and/or useful, if they only existed because so much government $$$ was available. If they had had to make do without government money, would they have found some cheaper way, would the discoveries have had to wait a decade or two?

          The amount of money thrown away on fusion power is an even more extreme case.

          1. Extrapolate that argument further out and suppose that the wealth stolen from the economy to fund scientific research was left in the hands of it’s rightful owners. Sure you wouldn’t get the immediate gratification that low-time preference individuals cherish, but society would be a few factors worth of that wealth richer, which leaves more money on the table to pursue science and without leaving so many corpses and inmates in it’s wake.

            If taxed funded science is integral to the modern world, then imagine if in the 1800’s, everyone was taxed at a 65% rate to pay for scientific research. Our modern world would have far less wealth in it, since the capital necessary to build it was eaten up in boondoggles that no one would voluntarily finance to begin with. I’d posit that in that scenario we’d be further behind in our knowledge and that we actually are presently further behind in our scientific knowledge than we otherwise would be without government centrally directing resources.

            1. I’m right there; no government-funded science at all. But I was more particularly wondering if the easy access to government funds had been leading big science down the wrong fork in the road.

              1. But I was more particularly wondering if the easy access to government funds had been leading big science down the wrong fork in the road.

                Well, would society benefit more from a better understanding of genetics or shrimp on a treadmill? Would we be better off having a greater understanding of the fundamental forces in nature or the effects of FarmVille on interpersonal relationships?

                Easy access to government funds muddies the waters, perverts incentives and has created an entire industry whose purpose is not research, but to scoop up as much of that grant money as possible. People are smart, but we’re much much smarter about gaining resources with as little work as possible than we are about conducting proper science.

            2. Matt Ridley makes a good case for not funding Big Science. Mostly, Engineering comes before Science anyway. The scientists just kinda clean up the loose ends after somebody who actually has to make something work does the hard stuff.

      2. Though it’s surprising how much science they were able to do with simple ionized gas chambers back in the day.

        You know.

        1. You know who else knows what you did there?

  12. Fun fact, the Nazis had a vibrant DIY science community in the realm of rocketry, and they shut it down quick, fast and in a hurry in the late 30s. So… you know who else?

    1. Sorry, that comment is misleading. Germany had a vibrant DIY science community in the late 30s, the Nazis shut it down.

      1. Way to ruin the know who else thread.

        1. Look, I can’t do everything around here…

          1. HELPING OTHERS IS NOT LIBERTARIAN

    2. It was their job to make them go up. Who cares where they came down?

      1. +1 mathematician and his piano

        1. O boo.

    3. The Nazis inherited a considerable amount of intellectual capital and set about murdering and chasing it all away in short order.

      1. Look, either you’re with us or you’re in the ovens, the choice is yours.

    4. Nazis absorbed vibrant German DIY rocket community into government program for long-range remote artillery. Only reason the Nazis took a chance on such a speculative technology for such an application was Versailles Treaty explicitly banning whole sizes/calibers of guns, forcing Nazis to explore alternate tech when they were still paying lip service to said treaty.

      I highly recommend Willie Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Man in Space for a great history of the VfR.

  13. About fifty dwarf companions to our galaxy were discovered, more than were expected from computer models of galactic evolution.

    While I’m at it… you know what else computer models are often wrong about?

    1. Stock prices in the future?

  14. About fifty dwarf companions to our galaxy were discovered

    Way more than enough to finally take back the Lonely Mountain.

  15. I’m a scientist for a living, but I play around with areas outside my specialty as a hobby. So, I guess that’s being an amateur. Best bang for the buck is theoretical physics- at the moment, I’m chewing through some stuff on quantum self-similarity which I think will end up publishable.

    1. Best bang for the buck is theoretical physics
      Citation needed.

      1. Pencil: 6 cents
        Pad of paper: $1.50

        The trick is wheedling my way out of page charges if I publish.

        1. experimentation is over-rated?

          1. Coincidentally, I published a series of articles on DIY metrology in an amateur science magazine which showed that you can get the same measurement power now with about $200 of hardware and a PC as you could 20 years ago with $200k worth of specialized signal processing equipment.

            1. Don’t they call that “Moore’s law”?

          2. Experimentation is only as valuable at the theory you’re testing. I imagine we could spend millions upon millions experimenting to see if Moon Made of Cheese theory is accurate. We’d probably get a definitive answer that’s worth shit because the theory is shit.

            1. righto. which is why i suppose no one tests those ideas.

              i’m just saying i have a vague recollection of the word, ‘experiment’ having some relationship to the word ‘science’

            2. OK, so one more person who doesn’t know what a “theory” is. In your case, not surprising.

              1. Turtles all the way down, man.

              2. Ok so one more person who takes every opportunity to be a crotchety old blowhard who bitches at people for the sake of bitching and nothing else.

                1. The lack of awareness…the irony…

                  1. The lack of awareness…the irony…

                    For all your accusations of other people projecting….this is rich.

              3. I know you think he should have used the word hypothesis, but you do understand that theories are tested too, don’t you?

                1. Yes, but what he used as an example wasn’t a theory.

                  1. Yes, but what he used as an example wasn’t a theory.

                    In a world where the postulation was commonly accepted, it would be a theory. Since the example was a rudimentary hypothetical one, it really doesn’t matter that you want to quibble over which word was used to score cheap points and win your own private game of pigeon chess.

                    1. Still don’t know what a theory is, apparently. How about doing a bit of studying first before spewing your fetid retard juice all over innocent passers-by?

        2. The trick is wheedling my way out of page charges if I publish.

          Is there some reason you need to publish in Frontiers or something? A typical journal shouldn’t charge you.

          I get the buck part of theoretical physics, but not the bang. Unless you fancy yourself the next Higgs. Frankly, I think medical imaging can have good bang for the buck. There are some bucks involved in the process, but an image that is clearly better than the competition, that’s got plenty o’ bang.

          1. Typical journals will charge you unless by typical you mean open journals.

          2. Phys Rev Lett will charge $740 per submission. Ouch.

  16. Amateur astronomy is one of the more accessible that the amateur can really make concrete contributions.

    Also, those are not 16 inch refractors. If they were that mount would have to be far larger than it is.
    Those are actually some rather expensive telephoto camera lenses.

    Unless there’s something else about this array I’m missing, I can’t help but think that what those guys did could actually be done cheaper and better with a 12 inch reflector.

    Since those are camera lenses, their main lenses are only a little over 2 inches in diameter. Even with 10 of them you only have a maximum light gathering area of about 34 square inches.
    A 12 inch reflector would have 113 square inches

    1. I was wondering where the “small cheap observatory” shit was coming from. 10 16″ refractors would cost a shitload of money. I’m not even sure who could and would make those.

      1. I think the largest refractors made commercially are about 8 inch, and those run 15,000+ easy.

        The lenses these guys used run about 10,000 each which doesn’t seem cheap until you compare it to the cost of your typical world class observatory equipped with 2m Ritchey chretiens

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