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developerWorks: Open Source in the Biosciences

Nov 19, 2002, 08:30 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Cameron Laird)

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"There are two kinds of bioscience. Open source is important to both, but in different ways. Let's look at both kinds from a developer's perspective, starting with Edsger Dijkstra's sage counsel:

"'The programmer is in the unique position that his is the only profession in which such a gigantic ratio [10^9], which totally baffles our imagination, has to be bridged by a single technology. He has to be able to think in terms of conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before. ... [A program] has, unavoidably, the uncomfortable property that the smallest possible perturbations -- i.e., changes of a single bit -- can have the most drastic consequences.' --Edsger Dijkstra, 1989

"The first kind of bioscience is 'small' bioscience: natural history, paleontology, limnology, and other traditional pursuits. 'Small' here refers strictly to budget constraints, not constraints on intellectual excitement or even physical challenge. For the present purposes, though, it's convenient to lump these biosciences together with other academic disciplines. developerWorks recently profiled open source's growing contribution in general science and engineering (see Resources later in this article).

"The other kind is the biosciences or bioinformatics you see mentioned in business or technology circles. However, the speakers invariably have something more narrow in mind: research of medical or, occasionally, agricultural benefit. Gargantuan investment pools are in pursuit of those biosciences, and it's essential to understand the consequences in order to see bioinformatics clearly..."

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