One of the most interesting realizations in recent years is that done right, massive, open collaborations are not just an efficient way of working, but they scale in a way that can take us to entirely new levels. A good example -- and perhaps the first project to exploit this fact -- is Linux, which grew from a small bunch of hackers working together across the internet on some bedroom code into a global, distributed project that now dominates every sector of computing bar one (the desktop -- so far.)
The open source methodology has inspired all kinds of cognate projects in different fields, including that of citizen science, which pools the efforts of large numbers of people working with simple tools to produce important results that can be published in academic journals. The best-known example of this is Galaxy Zoo, which asks members of the public to help classify some of the millions of images taken as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, many of them unseen by any human previously.
Adrian Bowyer, the man behind RepRap, an open-source project to construct a 3D printer that is capable of self-replicating -- that is, printing all of its parts -- has written a fascinating blog post about another application of citizen science. It involves hundreds of people taking a picture of the same patch of night-sky with their smartphones, and then uploading the digital image to the website of a BBC program, which coordinated the whole project. As Bowyer explains:
Each individual picture was just a black rectangle -- not enough starlight had gone through the lens to make an image that could be seen. But some had gone through, and registered in the camera's pixels as a slightly less-dark patch of black.
On its own, then, each image showed so little that it was impossible to make out anything. But this is what happens when you combine hundreds of them:
A computer first matched them up by making sure that the centres of the prominent stars were all in the same place, and then added up the slightly-less-black bits to make the picture. Of course the pixels in all the cameras were not in the same place relative to the stars, which means that each camera pixel could be split into thousands of final-image pixels, which gives the fabulous resolution
The resulting composite image (available as a 40 Mbyte tif file) looks like it was taken using a high-power telescope, and is a wonderful demonstration of how combining a large number of apparently insignificant contributions can create something unexpectedly impressive. Here's just part of the image:
Typically, Bowyer wants to take this striking example of open, distributed collaboration even further:
The human race is a species on which the stars never set. So let's make the Human Telescope. Set up a website to which anyone anywhere in the world can upload any sky images that they have taken with any digital camera, phone or telescope. The images will have a timestamp and a GPS location, and will be continually stacked by a computer in the background to give an exquisitely detailed evolving picture of the whole vault of the heavens.
The world would become a great spherical insect eye looking at every star, galaxy, planet and nebula all the time. We would be automatically finding comets, supernovae and near-Earth asteroids. We would never miss an astronomical trick.
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