The "Data Deluge": Collecting, Comparing, Computing

Bruno Strasser, Yale University

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, Regional Colloquium

Friday, March 18, 2011 - 5:00pm

Chemical Heritage Foundation

Abstract: The "data deluge" is upon us. The resulting "flood" threatens to "drown" all of those who have not learned to "swim in a sea of data". From the pages of the Economist to those of Nature, such aquatic (and biblical) metaphors for the new threat posed to humanity by an unprecedented amount of data have abounded. Statements about data floods, unlike those of sea floods resulting from climate change, seem to attract few skeptics. Scientists, and quite a few social scientists, have announced how this new environment could lead to the emergence of a "data-driven" science resting on the analysis of data collections. This paper will bring historical perspective to these claims. It will argue that, from the Renaissance to the present day, at least one science has been fundamentally "data-driven" and intimately linked to collections: natural history. The novelty of current "data-driven" research derives, not from its focus on large amounts of data, but from the hybridization of natural historical and experimental practices. In order to examine this claim, this paper will focus on the collecting, comparing, and computing of experimental data in the life sciences during the twentieth century. It will propose a historiographic framework — the "collecting sciences" — to bring this process into a "big picture" account of the development of the life sciences. Finally, it will reflect on how this perspective can illuminate current debates about "data-driven" science. Bruno J. Strasser is Assistant Professor of History of Science & Medicine at Yale University. His research focuses on the history of the biomedical sciences in the 20th century. His book, La fabrique d'une nouvelle science: La biologie moléculaire à l'âge atomique, 1945-1964 explores the emergence of molecular biology as new scientific discipline and professional identity in the Atomic Age. He is currently working on a new book project on collections and collectors in 20th century life sciences. He has published on the history of international scientific cooperation during the Cold War, the interactions between experimental science and clinical medicine, the transformations of the pharmaceutical industry, the development of scientific instrumentation, the role of collective memory, and the relationships between science and society. Nathan L. Ensmenger is Assistant Professor of the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research interests are aimed at reintegrating the history of the "information revolution'' -- very broadly defined to encompass a wide range of 19th and 20th century scientific, technological and social developments -- into mainstream American social and cultural history.