Around Australia, it is National Science Week! It is a chance to celebrate and bring focus to the efforts of those men and women in white coats who work meticulously in the all areas which make our lives easier, break new ground, and expand our boundaries and horizons. It is also a chance to participate in several surveys and collaborative efforts as citizen scientists.
There are people out there actively working in various fields, and to drum up support, they often talk at places like the annual TED conference held in Long Beach, California. (It has now gone worldwide and anyone can stage a TED talk or event. In fact, one was staged right here in my home-town of Sydney Australia not too long ago). All the talks are available for free, and are a great look at what people are doing, what they are discovering, and what amazing efforts are being aided by new technological breakthroughs.
However, science is not constrained to the scholarly, the geeky, or those mysterious men-in-white-coats who spend all their time in labs and are allergic to hair care. A recent phenomenon is citizen science – a way in which any of us can participate in discovery. As much as we know about this universe – when it roughly began (13.7 Billion years ago), what it’s largely made of, and where our place is in the cosmos – there are still so many, many things we still don’t know. Discoveries are being made in our lifetimes, and will continue to be made in the lifetimes of our most far flung descendants.
There have been a number of efforts over the past few years which have attempted to do better science by plugging into the power of the internet and citizen scientists (aka: you and me). One of the biggest and most fundamental tasks in any science is number-crunching. After data points are collected for any given study, those numbers have to be sorted, classified, and stored – all before theories can be inferred by the data, and published in a peer-reviewed journal. For a long time, this boring task was delegated to trainees, juniors, or lab assistants. I did a week’s work experience back in 1990s at Sydney Water. I learned how samples were taken in the field, then analyzed via mass-spectroscopy, those results recorded, and then crunched.
Because many scientific endeavors are largely un-sexy, funding grants are often hard to pitch to governments, which supply tax-payer dollars to fund such endeavors. (Governments really like to fund research which makes things go BOOM or allow us to find the fuel to make those things go BOOM. BOOM is very sexy and exciting.) Note, Governments aren’t the only source of funding. More and more entrepreneurs are getting into funding as a way to diversify investment and maybe get a tax write-off.
Some efforts, however, have figured out ways to bipass this time, funding and labor bottleneck by mining the bulky resource of citizen scientists around the world. Citizen science is all about cumulative and collaborative effort. According to this statistics website there are currently 6,845,609,960 people alive on the planet. 1,966,514,816 of us (28.7% of the total population) are connected to the internet in some way. If each of those people did just one minute of citizen science, that would be a phenomenal 3.2 MILLION MAN HOURS. The human Genome Project took 13 years (or 113,880 hours) of number crunching. Can you imagine how much time might have been saved if citizen scientists like you and me spent just a little time running some open-source software on our laptops while we updated our facebook status, checked our twitter accounts, or surfed Digg or Youtube? You’d be killing some time, and contributing to the pursuit of knowledge at the same time.
One of the first efforts I was aware of was Seti@Home. SETI stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life. Not UFO hunting, but signal hunting. We get many MANY signals from space, but narrow-bandwidth radio signals may suggest an intelligent source (well, an intelligence like ours, to be more precise, since that’s how we send our radio and TV to each other). Sifting through all the radio telescope data collected worldwide requires thousands upon thousands of man-hours. Now your home computer, laptop, or netbook can be turned into a node for SETI just by running a small bit of open-source software which will run in the background while you’re doing… well, anything else! The software sends you packets of info, crunches the numbers, and then sends back the data to the SETI servers. All you have to do in order to participate is own a computer! How easy is THAT? When I first tried out Seti@Home, I was on a dial-up account working at 28.8Kbps. Now I work on a constant broadband connection, so the information transferred is so much greater. I like to run this when my computer is rendering, and goes into screen saver mode.
Another site which requires just a tad more effort is Galaxy Zoo. Hubble has taken countless pictures of galaxies, but we know so little about how galaxies form, how many types there are, and how they work. Computers these days are really REALLY sophisticated. They can now recognize facial features. They can also pick out a galaxy from a picture… but what they cannot do is make a simple distinction between spiral and football-shaped. This is where you and I come in. By sorting through the pictures of documented galaxies, we can help provide scientists with a database of galaxies classified by various features. It may seem like a really really tiny thing, but just knowing whether a galaxy is spiral, globular, barred, or how many nuclei it contains provides precious data which can then be used to generate statistics, and give astronomers a better idea of the diversity of galaxies, and hopefully some insight into how they work. And we humans do it so much faster than computers!
To give you some idea of how effective Galaxy Zoo has been, here is an article printed in 2007 about how the data collected by Galaxy Zoo participants has already helped astronomers make new discoveries.
Galaxy Zoo is part of a greater effort called Zooniverse. You”l find other projects there including one which involves moon features.
More and more collaborative efforts for citizen scientists to take part in are cropping up all the time. Some to look out for:
Science is something we can all participate in. It isn’t always done in a lab, and it’s a pursuit which is extremely accessible. It is something we can all take part in every day. Accumulating a little understanding about the world around us helps build a grander, clearer and more beautiful image of this fascinating, mysterious, wondrous place we call Home.