The computer, once a tool for scientists, is becoming a collaborator

It's not just a tool serving science anymore. It's becoming a part of the science.

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While these applications might seem to have little in common, they represent a class of scientific problems involving experimental data that is voluminous and complex. In fact, the raw information is so overwhelming that scientists are often at a loss to know where to begin to make sense of it. Computer science is pointing the way.

"A trend that is becoming increasingly clear is that computer science is not just a discipline that provides computational tools to scientists," says Jon Kleinberg, a Cornell professor who won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2005 for his work on social networks. "It actually becomes part of the way in which scientists build theories and think about their own problems."

Kleinberg, who discovered the underlying rules that govern the widely publicized "six degrees of separation" phenomenon, says that computer algorithms will be to science in the 21st century what mathematics was in the 20th century. He says tackling a problem algorithmically allows scientists to change the question from "what is" to "how to," he says.

For example, the "small world" principle -- in which any two people are connected by short chains of acquaintances -- was demonstrably true, but no one understood just how these chains worked or why they were so short. "Looking at it as a computer scientist, I saw there was really an algorithm going on, a subtle algorithm based on distributed routing," Kleinberg says. His predictions about how friendships are formed at different distances, based on those algorithms, have been borne out by experiments.

In another example, biologists struggled with something called the Leventhal Paradox: From an astronomical number of possibilities, proteins fold in the optimum way far faster than can be explained by trial and error. Biologists and computer scientists working together developed algorithms that in essence showed how the proteins find shortcuts to optimum folds without trying every possibility. "That turned out to be a very nice 'how to' problem," Kleinberg says.

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