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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Tony Hey, Microsoft Corp.'s vice president for external research, speaks of "e-science," a set of technologies for supporting scientific projects where there is a huge amount of data (often distributed), the data and multiple collaborators are networked, and multiple disciplines, including computer science, converge. These projects tend to be enormously complex, and sorting them out is what the tools, algorithms and theories of computer science can help do, he says.

Hey says a "fourth paradigm" in science is emerging. For thousands of years, we have had experimental science, he says. Since Newton, we have had theoretical science, by which experimental results can be predicted by equations. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, we added simulation science, enabled by fancier equations and supercomputers. Now, Hey says, we are entering the era of "data-centric science."

The essence of data-centric science is to aggregate data, often in large quantities and from multiple sources, and then mine it for insights that would never emerge from manual inspection or from analysis of any one data source. He cites as an example a project called Galaxy Zoo, in which the public was invited to help classify millions of galaxies as either spiral or elliptical based on a million detailed images posted online by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The work behind Galaxy Zoo is simple, boring even, and the goal was just to establish a large-scale inventory that would help scientists derive theories about how galaxies evolve. But a year ago, a strange and wondrous thing happened. A high school teacher and Galaxy Zoo volunteer in the Netherlands discovered what would become known as Hanny's Voorwerp, an enigmatic object of a type never seen before. No one is sure just what the distant green cloud is -- perhaps an extremely rare type of quasar -- and it is now getting intense scrutiny from astronomers.

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