posted by: Tom Loughran
The central nervous system coordinates the flow of information from all parts of the bodies of animals (almost all parts, in almost all animals.) Think of it as the information management system of your brain, including especially the nerves running along the spinal cord. It is intimately involved in all of the complex activities of the animal as a whole. We can say that a single cell moves nutrients across its membrane, but we say of the animal as a whole that it eats when it’s hungry. Taking nourishment is an example of an activity of an organism as a whole, not just of any small assembly of parts. The central nervous system enables all the relevant parts to communicate with one another.
Science is an activity of a whole organism. But that whole is not a single individual; the organism is a species, or more precisely, a community. Its various activities are knit together into a complex system which accomplishes tasks…like searching for the Higgs boson. In a complex scientific activity like the search for the Higgs, the work of individuals is involved, in much the way that single cells are involved in taking nourishment. But the central activity is a group activity, by its nature. Members of the scientific community–which at one level are people, and at higher levels of complexity are collaborations (analogous to cells and organs in the body)–communicate with one another using a system much like our central nervous system. We call that system by various names: “network computing”, “the internet”, “the grid”, “the web.” It’s the central nervous system of human kind.
If you have five minutes, watch this 25-year retrospective on ESnet: one specialized portion of the internet dedicated to certain physical sciences, including those dedicated to finding the Higgs boson. It’s a chance to peek under the hood, so to speak, to see how an engine is wired. And when you hear of scientific discoveries, think about the whole organism–the scientific community–doing its work over systems like these.