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

Computer science — it’s not just about hardware and software anymore.

It’s about oceans, stars, cancer cells, proteins and networks of friends. Ken Birman, a computer science professor at Cornell University, says his discipline is on the way to becoming “the universal science,” a framework underpinning all others, including the social sciences.

An extravagant claim from someone with a vested interest? The essence of Birman’s assertion is that computers have gone from being a tool serving science — basically an improvement on the slide rule and abacus — to being part of the science. Consider these recent developments:

“Systems biologists” at Harvard Medical School have developed a “computational language” called “Little b” for modeling biological processes. Going beyond the familiar logical, arithmetic and control constructs of most languages, it reasons about biological data, learns from it, and incorporates past learning into new models and predictors of cells’ behaviors. Its creators call it a “scientific collaborator.”

Microsoft Research (MSR) is supporting a U.S.-Canadian consortium building an enormous underwater observatory on the Juan de Fuca Plate off the coast of Washington state. Project Neptune will connect thousands of chemical, geological and biological sensors on more than 1,000 miles of fiber-optic cables and will stream data continuously to scientists for as long as a decade. Researchers will be able to test their theories by looking at the data, but software tools that MSR is developing will search for patterns and events not anticipated by scientists and present their findings to the scientists.

Last year, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego, used statistical analysis to mine heart-disease data from 12,000 people in the Framingham Heart Study and learned that obesity appears to spread via social ties. They were able to construct social networks by employing previously unused information about acquaintances that had been gathered solely for the purpose of locating subjects during the 32-year study.

Computer scientists and plant biologists at Cornell developed algorithms to build and analyze 3-D maps of tomato proteins. They discovered the “plumping” factor that is responsible for the evolution of the tomato from a small berry to the big fruit we eat today. Researchers then devised an algorithm for matching 3-D shapes and used it to determine that the tomato-plumping gene fragment closely resembles an oncogene associated with human cancers. That work would have taken decades without computer science, researchers say.


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