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The universe in Big Data…

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 10, 2013

This is Part 2 of a two part series on the good side of Big Data. Following will be another series on the bad side of Big Data.

Part 2: New dimensions on knowledge…


Some of you may have heard about the Large Hadron Collider…it is the embodiment of Big Data. Where Big Data creates Big Science[1].

susy-cernIt has about 150 million sensors delivering data 40 million times per second. There are nearly 600 million collisions per second. That’s over 4 trillion bits of data every second.

That’s a lot of data, but to make it useful you need to filter it. So, of those 600 million collisions, only 100 are interesting to the scientist. Being able to get that kind of results was just not possible in the past.

It is not only the capacity to collect and store data, but there is the datification of the world. The first way this has happened in the transformation of old information into Big Data.

We have all probably heard of Google Books, this is an attempt by Google to take every book ever written and digitize it. They now have over 30 million scanned books. This means that not only are the contents of those books now available but research can be done on the words themselves.

By data mining this reservoir of previously hard to access data, researchers have been able to discover trends in social tension, the discovery of the super mother tongue and more.

Kepler-2011-02-03In astronomy a great many discoveries have been made thanks to Big Data. If we look at something the Kepler mission which has multiplied the number of known exoplanets. This remarkable device continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars over its almost 8 year lifetime. As of June 2013, Kepler found 132 confirmed exoplanets in 76 stellar systems, along with a further 3,216 unconfirmed planet candidates.

orangespiderThen there is the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) a satellite that obtained deep, multi-color images covering more than a quarter of the sky and created 3-dimensional maps containing more than 930,000 galaxies and more than 120,000 quasars. It is collecting data at a rate of about 200 GB per night, SDSS has amassed more than 140 terabytes of information since it started in 2000.

SDSS amassed more in its first few weeks than all data collected in the history of astronomy. When the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, successor to SDSS, comes online in 2016 it is anticipated to acquire the amount of data the SDSS did in its lifetime every five days


Other areas where we see Big Science is in the Human Genome project, Human Microbiome Project, Human Epigenome Project, the Human Protein Atlas and much more. All made possible by the growing ability to measure, collect and analyse Big Data.


President Obama announced earlier this year the BRAIN Initiative, a project to map the human mind…in real time…all of it…in action. The project would generate about 300 exabytes of data every year. Similar projects (Human Brain Project) are underway in the EU. The human brain contains about 86 billion (+/-) neurons. Now, you may (or may not) have heard that there are more neuron connections (100 trillion…yes with a T) in the human brain than there are stars in the universe (1000x more)…that is Big Data!

Of course another area that Big Data is helping the Globe is climate science. With more satellites with ever more accurate and sensitive instruments; we are getting a firmer understanding of what the weather is, how it changes and the how the various layers of the atmosphere/pedosphere /hydrosphere inter-reacts. This is allowing us to create ever more accurate climate models that will help forecast not only the weather but also the likelihood of extreme weather events (hurricanes, tornados, flooding, blizzards…etc.).

Currently, NASA Center for Climate Simulation stores 32 petabytes of climate observations and simulations on the Discover super-computing cluster…with more to come.


Big Data…the good part of it, is helping us navigate the world and discover the universe in ways impossible a generation ago. But Big Data has a dark side. The next series will deal with Big Data’s dark side.



[1] Note big science refers to more than the Big Data aspect. For example the Large Hadron Collider qualifies as big science both for the data but also the sheer size of the experiment as well as the number of people/nations involved and its budget. So some things may qualify as big science but not be Big Data…. in our context big science must involve Big Data.


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