Next summer, the Large Hadron Collider, Europe's
$9 billion investment in particle physics, will take a handful
of ions, hurl them through 17 miles of circular tunnel and smash
them together so hard they will shatter into the finest atomic
shards anyone has ever observed.
If all goes according to plan, the glints and
flashes from those shards will at last reveal the mysterious
Higgs boson, the one particle that endows all others with the
property of mass.
For those of us who aren't particle physicists,
that may sound awfully exotic, not to mention
But if we take a step back, and view it in the
broader context of contemporary science, the grand project of
particle physics seems suddenly not such a wild exception, but
rather a vivid example of a very broad trend: Across many
different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and
smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. With this process
of centralization come changes in what scientists measure - and
even in what scientists are.
In physics, a slow drift toward centralization
was given a sudden shove during World War II - think Manhattan
Project - so it is perhaps not surprising that colliders today
epitomize what historians have called "Big Science." But a
similar evolution is now evident in virtually every discipline.
When a crystallographer wants to determine the
structure of a molecule, she signs up for time at a big
synchrotron, which can generate the powerful X-rays she'll need.
When a biologist wants the sequence of a certain genome, he
submits his proposal to a large sequencing center, where armies
of automated machines read their way in parallel through
different paragraphs of a genome's text. And when an ecologist
wants to study the effects of all that extra CO2 in the air,
she'll turn to the very same national labs that achieve particle
smashing, Brookhaven and Oak Ridge, which have built systems for
manipulating the atmosphere over entire forests.
It's not only scientific instruments, but also
the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization.
If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone
in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is,
so far, an age of scientists as administrators. Many of the
best-known scientists of our day are men and women exceptionally
talented in herding the resources - human and otherwise -
required to plan, construct and use big
In a way, centralization seems unavoidable. A
young discipline is bound to move first through the data it can
gather most easily. And as it does, it also defines more exactly
what it must measure to test its theories. As the low-hanging
fruit vanish, and the most precious of fruits are spotted high
above, bigger investments in harvesting equipment become
necessary. Centralization is a way to extend scientists' reach.
Of course, there are also some drawbacks. There's
something disturbingly hierarchical about the new architecture
of the scientific community: What was before something like a
network of small villages is today more like an urban high-rise,
with big offices at the top and a lot of cubicles down below.
The trouble with this is not just what it means
for the folks in the cubicles, but also that the entire business
should rely so heavily on the creativity and vision of
relatively few managers. If the glassy office is occupied by
Einstein, that's great, but of course there's always a chance it
won't be. (Tellingly, this point was made to me by a friend who
grew up in the Soviet Union. "Trust me," he said,
"centralization is risky.")
And then there's that problem of relating to Big
Science when you're standing outside the building, looking up.
The difficulty is not just that the research is recondite, but
that the work is institutional, as opposed to individual. After
all, not many people really understood the paper on general
relativity, but many did connect with Einstein. Sure, we all
pitch in our tax dollars, but it's hard to feel a whole lot of
personal involvement in the search for the Higgs boson.
But if Big Science is what it takes to gather the
truly precious data, what are we to do?
There is another way to extend our scientific
reach, and I believe it can also restore some of what is lost in
the process of centralization. It has been called Citizen
Science, and it involves the enlistment of large numbers of
relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific
data. To return to our architectural metaphor, if Big Science
builds the high-rise yet higher, Citizen Science extends outward
the community of villages.
For me, an especially inspiring example of
Citizen Science is the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count.
Every winter, from mid December to early January, tens of
thousands of intrepid hobbyists fan out across North America,
and together, they do their best to answer two basic questions:
How many birds are there? And what kinds?
It's a simple sort of data, to be sure, but it is
nonetheless scientifically invaluable. The CBC dataset now
covers 109 years, and this remarkable temporal extent, along
with geographic range that spans the continent, enables
scientists to address questions that would otherwise be as
inaccessible as a Higgs boson. Just in the past few years,
scientists have used the CBC dataset to track the emergence and
impact of West Nile virus, to understand the ecological effects
of competition between introduced species and to measure the
shift that birds make toward the poles in response to
The CBC is surely a glowing exemplar, but there
are many other cases of Citizen Science in action. Even
underwater, a snorkeling citizen can serve science by taking
down a few notes, which he'll enter into a Web site when he
returns to shore. The Internet is a natural medium for Citizen
Science. An initiative known as The Encyclopedia of Life has
called upon the world's hobbyists to contribute their sundry
discoveries to a Web-based library of species: one page per
organism, featuring photos, taxonomy, natural history,
Of course, Citizen Science won't be very helpful
in genome sequencing or particle physics. But it will be helpful
- perhaps essential - for gathering a kind of data that will be
increasingly important over the next few decades. Widespread
networks of observers are especially well-suited to detecting
global change - shifts in weather patterns; movements in the
ranges of species; large-scale transformations of ecosystems -
and that, unfortunately, is something we will need to know far
more about if we are to mitigate and adapt to the fateful
effects we are having on the planet.
In the end, though, what may be most important
about Citizen Science is what it could mean for the relationship
between citizens and science. When everyone is gathering data,
that rather austere and forbidding tower becomes a shared
In 1963, Alvin Weinberg, who was then the
director of Oak Ridge, likened Big Science to the greatest
monuments civilizations have ever built: the cathedrals of
medieval Europe; the pyramids of Egypt. But just as we build
higher our temples of scientific investigation, so too should we
strengthen their foundations, and broaden their congregations.
Aaron E. Hirsh, a research associate at the
University of Colorado, Boulder, is a biologist and writer based