Data underpins society’s forward trajectory into the future, whether that is understanding the Universe in greater detail or fighting disease more effectively.
The unlikely collaboration of these two disciplines began when Dr Nicholas Walton, an astronomer, met James Brenton from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.
They were attending a cross-disciplinary meeting between astronomers and oncologists in Cambridge to discuss data management.
Professor Carlos Caldas from Cancer Research UK explained the result of this meaning, the possibilities it opened up.
“Astronomers are looking at pictures of the sky, but they can’t sift through millions of pictures by hand, so they use imaging algorithms that can analyse and classify objects,” he said.
“We obtain images from humans. Could we deploy the same algorithms to read that data?”
“Using the astronomy algorithm, we can automatically classify hundreds of thousands of cells, we can look at patterns, how cells are related to each other, we can precisely count them and find the average distance between cells,” Caldas continued.
“It speeds up diagnosis and allows us to glean information that had previously been glossed over. It is completely transforming pathology into the digital realm. The sky is the limit.”
This collaboration has contributed to a breakthrough from scientists at Cancer Research UK the way they can read breast cancer cells.
The astronomy algorithm has helped enable the scientists to create a 3D map of cells, where doctors can then recognise those that contain the disease. But big data goes beyond diagnosis.
“Data is exploding but so is the technology and that understand and exploit it,” said Nick Millman, an analyst at consultancy firm Accenture.
“In health, the techniques that have previously been used in marketing analytics that have allowed brands to understand an individual’s preferences can be applied to wellness – how to encourage someone to follow a healthier diet, for instance.”
Of course, with this increased interaction and reliance on data the inevitable issue of privacy arises. This is one of the central themes of an exhibition currently running at London’s Science Museum.
Sheldon Paquin, the exhibition’s curator, told the BBC: “This silent revolution has completely changed everything about our lives, from how we look to the stars, to our trips to the doctor, to how we talk with one another. We imagine the modern world to be fast-paced, connected and interwoven with technology, all things that we owe inescapably to big data.
“We can now examine the evolution of language, search the genome for disease, navigate cities yet to be built and identify our common fears. Our increased connectivity is making us easier to read.”