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To Err is Human. To Really Screw Up, You Need a Computer

Computers have been scientific workhorses since the Army's ENIAC prototype computer made calculations for the Manhattan Project in World War II. But today, reliance on computers has turned into dependence on programs like Excel. But a few recent speed bumps illustrate computer concerns for scientists:

  • In July, the editors of the Journal of Cell Biology cautioned researchers against misuse of the popular photo-manipulation program Photoshop to clean up images, a practice that can cross the line into misconduct. For example, some researchers were removing imperfections in photos of gels used to find genes. "Just because the tools exist to clean up sloppy work digitally, that is no excuse to do sloppy work," JCB editors warned.
  • In January, a computer glitch nearly disabled NASA's Mars rover Spirit, leaving it incommunicado with mission controllers for two weeks. Rewritten computer codes updated the flash memory on the mobile probe and put it back into service.
  • Last year's report on the space shuttle Challenger accident that killed seven astronauts excoriated "Engineering by Viewgraphs." Report authors concluded that NASA scientists had used PowerPoint presentations to make it look like they had done analyses that they hadn't. Over-reliance on presentations instead of analysis was seen as "an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA" that contributed to the shuttle disaster.

USA Today August 30, 2004

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