The World Wide Web’s origin as a tool that grew from scientific communication is often forgotten, lost in its near-ubiquitous presence in almost every aspect of our lives. Despite this, there can be no doubt that it has revolutionized scientific practice and changed the way science is done for ever.
Whereas once astronomers like me would have to suffer the hardship of travelling to telescopes in Hawaii, the Canary Islands and elsewhere, we’re now much more likely to access and view archive data via the web. Whereas once we would have run into colleagues at conferences we, like scientists from many fields, now collaborate with researchers from around the world. And papers and preprints can now fly around the world without waiting for the post, literally speeding up scientific communication.
Important though these changes are, the most important impact may be the way that the web is blurring the boundaries between professional scientists and the public. My own astronomical science is carried out in collaboration with the community at Zooniverse.org, who have helped us sort through galaxies, map the Milky Way’s star forming regions and even discover planets around other stars.
These ‘citizen science’ projects, made necessary by the sheer volume of data we now have access too, are able to reach hundreds of thousands of people via the web. They are powerful engines of motivation, turning those who haven’t previously engaged seriously with science into budding researchers. Those newly enthusiastic volunteers then take the same advantage of access to papers and data as the rest of us, and that’s the real legacy of the web - science that not only moves faster, but which takes many more of us along with it.
Dr Chris Lintott was awarded the Royal Society Kohn Award in 2011. He is a BBC Sky at Night Presenter.