Big Science, Bigger Data

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To most people – fans of Heinz ketchup notwithstanding – the number “57” may not mean much. But it has some import this week for the history of science. July 1 marked the 57th anniversary of the start of the International Geophysical Year in 1957.

The IGY was the most ambitious international science project of the twentieth century. Between July 1957 and December 1958, tens of thousands of professional scientists from sixty-seven nations manned hundreds of stations around the globe and researched topics in geodesy and geophysics, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and other fields.

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Although Haiti was a very minor player in the IGY, the international scientific project was remembered by this stamp.

Major achievements of the IGY include the detection of the Van Allen radiation belts around the earth, further exploration of Antarctica, and confirmation of a worldwide system of underwater mountains and ridges that helped further scientists’ understanding of plate tectonics. Most stunning of all was the appearance of the first artificial satellites beginning with the 4 October 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.

The IGY also inspired a nice jazzy number by Steely Dan member Donald Fagen whose song depicted an optimistic view of the future – solar cities and fast travel “undersea by rail…New York to Paris”. I’m hard pressed to think of any other Big Science project – other than Laurie Anderson’s eponymous number – commemorated likewise in a pop song. Anyway…

While Big Science efforts often inspire hyperbolic statements boasting the “biggest this” or the “costliest that,” scientists and journalists were on the mark when they labeled the IGY a “symphony of science” and the “greatest exploratory effort of modern times.”

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One of several beautiful promotional posters for the IGY that appeared in a booklet prepared by the National Academy of Sciences.

Oceanographic survey ships, polar research camps, high mountain observatories, backyards, and high school rooftops served as field stations and research laboratories. The IGY’s cost was stunning as well. It cost some $2 billion (about $14 billion in today’s currency) with the U.S.’s share fully one quarter of this.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.33.58 AMWhat was also remarkable about the IGY was that it gave amateur scientists an opportunity to contribute data and observations along with their professional counterparts. Ham radio operators, meteor spotters, and weather observers participated in IGY-related activities and stimulated interest among ordinary citizens to explore science’s seemingly endless frontier. War-surplus equipment, commercially-available science kits, and a knack for constructing their own equipment enabled amateurs’ pursuits. The community of amateur scientists blossomed during the heyday of the IGY.

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Moonwatchers at work

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory organized Operation Moonwatch in 1956 as part of the IGY. Its initial goal was to enlist the aid of amateur astronomers and other citizens who would help “real” scientists spot satellites. However, until professionally-manned stations came on-line in 1958, this network of amateur scientists and other interested citizens played a critical role in providing crucial tracking information regarding the world’s first satellites.

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The IGY’s Big Science produced a whopping amount of what today would be called Big Data. Nightly observations from Moonwatchers were just one rivulet contributing to the river of data that flowed to one of several World Data Centers created just for the IGY. Several of these centers were set up to receive only a certain type of data. Information about geomagnetism went to Denmark and Japan while glaciology info went to the United Kingdom, for instance. Only the United States and the USSR received the full run of IGY data. Because the IGY was conceived as a global project aimed at synoptic observations over 18 months, handling the flow of data posed a considerable test for project scientists.

Dealing with this Big Data was made more challenging because the IGY’s, nominally a civilian activity, also had military implications. Launching satellite-carrying rockets was just the most obvious manifestation of this. Polar exploration, upper atmospheric studies, oceanographic circulation – all of this data could potentially benefit Cold Warriors in the US and Soviet Union.

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British-American survey of the Atlantic. Each dot represents a point where data were collected on ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen content, and dissolved chemicals. (Source)

This dual-use data raised questions about its circulation. Elementary data was, according to one IGY leader in the U.S, “the building blocks of scientific progress” but its end use might have national security implications.

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Note submarine prowling along…

Moreover, there were contentious issues around the sharing of data. At one point, Soviet scientists boasted to the USSR’s Central Committee that they were receiving far more IGY information from the West than they were sending back. During the IGY, data became a particular form of currency,with its own exchange rate, among researchers.

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Looking beyond the national security state, data regimes established during the IGY had a long life. A recent article by Elena Aronova, Karen Baker, and Naomi Oreskes connects the Big Data practices of the IGY with later efforts such as the International Biological Program, a decade-long initiative that was seen by advocates as a way of bringing Big Science-style research to ecology. The IBP’s success was limited but it paved the way for today’s Long-Term Ecological Research program used by ecologists today. As Aronova & company note, Big Data collection – typically associated with fields like physics – also “achieved legitimacy” in other areas like biology during the IGY and became an accepted way of doing research.

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Japanese postage stamp commemorating the IGY

Today, Big Data is hailed, hyped, and hated. The practice among small social media companies and giants like Amazon can be summarized as “monitor, manage, and monetize.” For scientists, Big Data is a nebulous term used to describe the creation of massive data archives which are then searched in anticipation of finding new patterns and relationships.

But an overabundance of data, in fact, has long presented scientific communities with tremendous challenges. Where once scientists complained that they did not have enough data, it’s now routine for them to worry about it drowning them. One major headwater for the today’s data surge (or, flood, deluge, pick your metaphor) of scientific data started to flow 57 years ago.

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Examples of the many IGY books that came out c. 1957-58



One thought on “Big Science, Bigger Data

  1. Pingback: What is Big Data? Part II: Heterogeneous Materiality | AmericanScience

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