Prashanth: I Met Michael Nielsen!

(This is cross-posted from my blog, Das U-Blog by Prashanth.)

I did it today yesterday! Woot! (And I got a picture with him!) Although he is specifically a physicist, most well known for his seminal textbook on quantum computing, he came to give a colloquium about open science in general, and it’s doubly cool for me because I’m interested in both physics and things like open science. (Also, before the talk, I mentioned to him that I first read about him on Glyn Moody’s blog, which you should totally read. That’s how Dr. Nielsen figured out I’m a free software kind of guy. He also told me that Mr. Moody’s a cool guy too.)

He talked about stuff like the development of Linux and Wikipedia through crowdsourcing, but he also discussed failures like the innumerable abandoned technical wikis intended to attract the best researchers in that field that litter the web. He also discussed how scientists’ conservatism regarding releasing data openly dates back many centuries, when 200 years after the introduction of the printing press in Europe, scientists in Europe were still reluctant to release their work in print. He took that to today and how that conservatism negatively affects research progress, along with what some people have done to combat it, and in the spirit of the talk, he opened the floor to questions and also to discussion about how individual scientists can promote and do open science.

I was able to ask him a question about one thing he said about Galileo: apparently, Galileo was concerned about other people getting credit for doing the same work as him independently of him, so he only “published” his work by sending a few select other scientists his work, but scrambled into anagrams unreadable at first sight. Then, if those scientists tried to publish similar work independently, he would be able to pull out the unscrambled manuscripts and prove that he came up with those ideas first. I asked him if the scrambling was really done for that purpose, given that Galileo published his work about a heliocentric universe in vernacular Italian, as opposed to the scholarly Latin, specifically to reach the masses (and that’s what got him the undue attention of the Roman Catholic Church). Dr. Nielsen replied that while that might be the case, it is clear that his intent with those scrambled letters was to ensure that credit would go to himself first, as Johannes Kepler actually begged Galileo to tell him the unscrambled message, and Galileo refused until Kepler’s patron (the Holy Roman Emperor) got into the act too. It was interesting for me to hear about these two sides of Galileo. I was going to also ask him how gene patenting squared with the Bermuda Accords, which were codified into policy by many countries to force scientists to release sequenced genomes into the public domain if said sequences were more than 1000 base pairs long. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to ask him that.

(UPDATE: I was also lucky enough to be picked (among about 7-8 other people) to chat with him over lunch today! Yay! Our conversation started with the question of how to get people to truly trust what scientists are telling them, because unless everyone is an expert in every field that gets featured on the news, at some point some level of trust and faith in the verity of what scientists say is unfortunately required. Plus, it’s no good if scientists become like fundamentalist preachers standing at the front of the room as a so-called authority dictating how people should think. I think the consensus regarding outreach in this sense is really to start with getting young kids into science, and to plant seeds of curiosity and critical thinking in people in different cities and towns, because people will probably be more open and receptive to scientific ideas if they come from the mouths of their neighbors as opposed to the mouths of outsiders.

The conversation then shifted to other random stuff, including sports, movies, and the recent discovery of neutrinos that travel faster than light through the Earth’s innards (but still slower than light in a vacuum). I was able to also ask the question about gene patenting versus the Bermuda Accords, and Dr. Nielsen admitted that his understanding of gene patents was only marginally better than that of a layperson and that he didn’t really know what to say about it, aside from the fact that the Accords only seem to apply to sequences of already-existing DNA. Additionally, I asked him how people getting into academia who do not yet have tenure (and the associated very high job security) could practice more open science. He conceded that he really is advocating for more thorough, comprehensive reform on the part of scientists and journals; he reminded me of how yesterday he discussed how only the most cutting-edge (in terms of making the most use of new technologies) journals accept things like YouTube videos, despite the fact that many times, it is almost trivially easy to show in a video what is otherwise almost impossible to clearly write in a paper. He said that individual scientists should publish in open-access journals if said journals exist in the field and if they are of the same quality and have the same quality standards as closed-access counterparts; in addition, if scientists truly believe that things like computer code that they write will be very widely used, they should open that code into the public domain, but asking scientists to open-source everything would be too much and, perhaps, sometimes unwise in and of itself.

The conversations I was able to have with him before and during his colloquium talk and during this lunch were incredibly satisfying and intellectually stimulating, and it makes me so glad that I’m here right now!)

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