Open Source

To me, there are two types of scientific research. There are those experiments that are done to further advance the human race and then there are those motivated by the bottom-line. Obviously, this is a fairly simplistic way to look at things. Many businesses that operate to make money have also advanced the human race in some shape or form. Just ask anyone who has ever used any of the countless pain relievers on the market.

Still, if you look at James Watson when compared with the futuristic HealthWyzer company in the novel, Oryx and Crake, there is a striking difference in motivation of the parties involved. Watson wants to solve the problem presented by DNA. Yes, he wants the personal glory. Yes, he wants his name to be known. But you get the feeling when he talks about what a shame it is that Maurice Wilkins isn’t going about researching DNA the right way, it’s because Watson wants someone, anyone to crack the code. So why shouldn’t Watson have access to the x-rays Wilkins has taken? In his mind, he knows how to attack the problem. He just needs the information to do so.

Consider open-source computer programming. A great example of this is the Linux operating system. It operates under the assumption that by making its program editable by anyone, that collective effort will lead to great discoveries and the best operating system example. Look at Wikipedia. It is run on that same idea of communal knowledge for the betterment of everyone. Wikipedia is now the place to go for information. It has rendered standard encyclopedias obsolete.

HealthWyzer, on the other hand, is basically Pfizer or any other large pharmaceutical company multiplied by ten. It is run for profit, to the point that Crake’s father suspects them of manufacturing diseases to then cure at a later date. They make their scientists live inside their gates, heavily guard their research and are the targets of industrial espionage. Who cares if the human race is bettered? It’s every man for himself—each one trying to discover the next great erectile dysfunction drug or the next great way to prolong life.

Money is a powerful motivator, which is one reason some point to as to why communism often becomes corrupted. The idea of everyone working towards one goal on paper is great but in reality often falls apart. I’m not here to preach about which way is better.

But Watson’s story sits at lot better with you than HealthWyzer’s, doesn’t it? Unselfish teamwork is something to behold in the lab or on the basketball court. Just ask Northern Iowa.

-Matt P.

~ by mattpopkin on March 21, 2010.

3 Responses to “Open Source”

  1. Although I agree with you on the sheer potential of open source computing, I find it a bit of a stretch to comparing it to Watson’s discovery of DNA.
    I personally have no issue with Watson wanting to discover DNA for the glory or fame, and I also got the impression that although he may have been disappointed if he hadn’t discovered it, he would have also been elated by the fact that the structure of DNA was known.
    However, I find it a bit tedious to compare this to open source computing due to the issue of accessibility. Open source computing thrives on the potential of anyone with a computer to contribute. Surely many don’t, however contribution to any open source effort does not require a large money or time investment.
    Scientific research, on the other hand, involves a large investment of both time and money. I would find it difficult to believe that a high school graduate could go out and do meaningful scientific research in private. However, I would consider it very possible for the same high school graduate to be able to make significant contributions to open source computing.
    The issue here is simply that the resources required for open source development are widespread and commonly available, and this simple fact is what makes open source computing so powerful. Scientific research, however, requires specific equipment and a much greater time involvement that is not accessible to most individuals unless they are a scientist.

    So, although I agree with you on your views of both open source computing and Watson’s take on scientific research, I have to dismiss your connection between them.

    If you are interested in looking into open source computing some more, then you might want to look at “After the Software Wars” by Keith Curtis, which can, not surprisingly, be downloaded for free here:

  2. “Surely many don’t, however contribution to any open source effort does not require a large money or time investment.”

    I don’t believe that statement is true at all. I consider myself quite computer-literate but I cannot contribute to Linux because I am not a gifted programmer. I consider myself pretty well educated but I cannot edit many of the articles on Wikipedia. The knowledge necessary to add to these platforms takes a major time investment and a monetary one as well in the form of high education.

    Please point me to the average high-school graduate who is making outstanding contributions to the open source field. Obviously, someone who is extraordinary — on the Bill Gates level of brilliant — could contribute but for the most part, you need higher education and some sort of funding (say, a job in that field) to contribute. Just like science.

    I am not saying Open Source equals science labs. I was merely trying to say that the sharing of information between science labs — like Watson so desires — could be as beneficial as other Open Source programs have been. Science labs would share their information not with some English major like me but with other science labs, which would hopefully have the equipment and money to make use of that information.

  3. I really like your analogy to Wikipedia and scientific research. I think people take for granted the fact that computers are common these days but that wasn’t always the case. Wikipedia has some sort of edit process much like scientific research is peer-reviewed before its allowed to be an “open source.”

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