Software and Space: Investigating How a Cosmology Research Group Enacts Infrastructure by Producing Software

Drew Paine

August 2016


Committee members:

  • Charlotte P. Lee, Chair
  • Jennifer A. Turns
  • Mark R. Zachry
  • David Ribes

This dissertation project produced findings examining the scientific software development and infrastructure production of a group of physicists & astronomers engaged in empirical cosmology (the Radio group). Through this research I offer a novel perspective on the production, use, and work of software in science by explicitly taking software as my object of inquiry and emphasizing how in scientific research software is not some static product to simply be sustained but a perpetually mutable instantiation of method to be iterated upon and improved through the ongoing work of research.


This research elaborates upon three primary themes:

  1. Software is the expression of the Radio group’s scientific method
  2. Plots (scientific visualizations) are a language for conducting this work, particularly testing software and evaluating methods
  3. How the group works across and among multiple layered research infrastructures

My work studying the Radio group departs from most prior studies of research infrastructures in multiple key ways.


First, it takes software as the object of its inquiry, tracing its creation and use by relying more upon virtual or trace ethnographic practices rather than traditional ethnography alone. Scientific infrastructure studies to date primarily focus on organizational aspects of these projects or resources like data and issues surrounding it. Shifting focus to follow and deeply interrogate software in scientific work as instantiations of evolving scientific methods—and more than just surface issues like how the artifact is or is not made available and shared—is long overdue and vital if scholars and funders are to better understand and support twenty­ first century data­-intensive scientific research.


Second, instead of focusing on the organizational effort to build an infrastructure this study examines how one scientific group, among many in the project, conducts their work and contributes to and draws from multiple infrastructures to demonstrate how scientists in one local context do global work.


Third, instead of analytically examining a singular infrastructure project this research works to carefully scope the facets of the group and their project being studied to draw out multiple layered infrastructures (visualized below, with my foci highlighted in green) that they are not only working among but helping to continually build and sustain in a continual co­-constructive process.



These second and third departures from prior infrastructure studies work provide the ability to re­-examine and more carefully consider how different artifacts and practices are embedded in data­-intensive scientific work.


My examination of this group’s plot-based data analysis and software testing practices (theme 2 above) draws upon my iterative analysis of observations, interviews, and myriad artifacts. These unique plots (such as the one immediately below) are used in a collaborative manner to surface phenomena in the data, issues with their telescope, and flaws in the software. I used my dissertation to illustrate how this group’s plot practices provide them with a mechanism for systematically testing their high-precision data analysis software in ways that are akin to common software engineering methods.




This work was funded as part of Charlotte P. Lee’s National Science Foundation awards IIS-0954088 and ACI-1302272.