The most important non-scientific book about science that you will ever read is Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.
It lays out how the current scientific publishing process is a hold over from the 19th century and passionately makes the case for Open Science. The latter is mostly understood to be synonymous with Open Access, i.e. no more hiding of scientific results in prohibitively expensive journals, especially when public tax funded grants or institutions paid for the research.
But Michael has a more expansive view. He makes the case that science can be measurably enriched by coming out of the Ivory tower and engaging the public via well designed crowdsourcing efforts such as the Galaxy Zoo.
On this blog, I have written many times about the shortcomings of science media large and small, as well as the unsatisfying status quo in theoretical physics. And readers may be justified in wondering why this should matter to them. The answer to this is straightforward: Science is too important for it to be left to the scientists. Our society is shaped by science and technology, and to the extent that we’ve all learned about the scientific method, everybody has the capacity to raise valid questions. Science, as any other major endeavor, benefits from a critical public, and that is why the fairytale science that I wrote about in my last post is a dangerous development. It lulls the interested observers into believing that they are clearly out of their depth, incapable of even formulating some probing questions. This can in fact be turned into a criteria for bad science: If a reasonably intelligent and educated person cannot follow up with some questions after a science presentation, it’s a pretty good indication that the latter is either very poorly done, or may deal in fairytale science (the only problem with this criteria is that usually everybody considers themselves reasonably intelligent).
The antidote to this pathological development is Open Science as described by Michael Nielsen and Citizen Science. The latter I’ll expect to develop no less of an impact on the way we do science as the Open Source movement had on the way we do computing. Never have the means to do quality science been as affordable as today; A simple smartphone is already a pretty close match to the fabled Star Trek tricorder, and can easily be turned into precision instruments. Science labs used to require skilled craftsmen to build scientific rigs, but 3D printers will level the playing field there as well. This means that experiments that would have required major funding just two decades away are now within the means of high school students.
So, don’t ask what science can do for you, but what you can do for science.*
*In this spirit, I decided to step up this blog’s content, and didn’t shy away from the expenses to engage in some original reporting. Last week I took a trip to Canada’s high tech wonderland, which happens to be Burnaby, BC just outside Vancouver. Stay tuned for some upcoming first hand reporting on D-Wave and General Fusion.