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Citizen Science

By Andrew Gorton

I think there is a tendency now that when the 'S' word is mentioned, the image that is conjured up in most people's minds is of huge, barely comprehensible projects such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the Human Genome Project and the like.  There is a very human tendency for non-scientifically literate minds to go blank, or sometimes seize up with panic at the mere mention of science.  Certainly scientists and engineers are perceived as highly intelligent but socially inept, working on a level that most people cannot hope to reach.  
Do not fear though, because there are ways average people can contribute to the scientific enterprise.

One very simple thing to do is to take part in a volunteer computing project. This is where you can lend your computer's (capacious) spare processing power to one of an increasing number of
scientific projects. This first began in 1999 with SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). One of their ongoing projects is to sift through data gathered by radio telescopes for specific patterns that may indicate the presence of intelligent life. The SETI team pioneered the technique of parcelling the data out over the internet to ordinary desktop computers, which would then process it during their idle moments. All a PC user has to do is download a free piece of software, hook up to the project and just let it run. Whether or not you can see any point to SETI, the project has paved the way for many other projects such as more mainstream astronomical projects and medical investigations to looking at new ways of playing chess. One recent project that caught my eye is in the process of decoding three ENIGMA messages transmitted during World War Two. ENIGMAs were complex machines that were designed by the Germans to encode messages. The codes were supposed to be unbreakable, but teams at Bletchley Park were able to do this by, among other techniques, developing the first computers. There is a computer museum located there now.
For those wanting a more active role, Galaxy Zoo was launched in 2007. The idea behind this project for anyone with a web browser can classify pictures of galaxies by their shape –whether elliptical or spiral. Although computers are good at crunching large amounts of data very quickly, one thing they are not good at is pattern recognition jobs like this, something which humans excel at. The military have a phrase for similar situations – using the Mark 1 Eyeball. In many situations this approach is better than any amount of technology. (The phrase was even used in the new Battlestar Galactica TV series. If memory serves, the characters had to solve a problem similar to Galaxy Zoo’s.)
Galaxy Zoo has been extremely successful with 150,000 volunteers taking part in the first stage
enabling the project scientists to conclude a lot about galaxy types and their behaviour. The project has since been relaunched, as Zooniverse, with galaxies taken from the Hubble telescope archives and a more comprehensive classification process. Having taken part it is a strangely addictive process: you are shown a photo of a galaxy, and you answer questions about its structure (round or spiral; if spiral, how many arms; how tight are the arms; and several more in a similar vein) by pressing the appropriate button next to the photo. The process takes about 30 seconds for each galaxy, and you can easily spend 15 minutes or longer doing this. Even the most powerful computers could spend several minutes on each galaxy, and their results are often unreliable. The same project has now widened considerably. Users can now classify features on the moon, and hunt for solar flares and supernovae.
Since moving to the Norfolk coast from London about 6 years ago, it recently occurred to me that I know very little about the natural world, especially the wild life. Last year a website called iSpot was launched with involvement by the Open University. This website allows you to upload photographs of plants, animals and fungi –anything living wild basically, for other users and wildlife experts to peruse. You add the location, habitat and date of the observation, and what you think the critter might be. Other people can agree with that ID or supply their own if you are unsure. iSpot made the news recently when a species of moth that was new to the UK was identified by an expert. I bet the six-year old girl who put it up on the site was dead chuffed! They still have the insect, which will shortly end up in the Natural History Museum for posterity.
For myself, I have contributed a number of butterflies and other insects to iSpot, as I have been out and about in my garden, and my local area at large. I get quite a buzz by supplying an ID from a book and having several other people agree with it!
Amethyst Deceiver
Being unemployed I have been involved in a number of voluntary activities. A recent one I have started with is an organisation called Norfolk Workout, which carries out a number of conservation activities in my local area. A recent activity involved a bird and butterfly survey to Bacton Wood near North Walsham. As is often the way, we saw no butterflies and only a few birds, but the fungi were everywhere. I have never seen so many types before in one place. I took photographs of a few, (due to Murphy’s law, the batteries gave out on the camera before I could take many pictures. Will always carry spares in future!) then had them identified on iSpot. I then emailed them to Mark, the organiser, and he wants to use the for a fungi website he wants to set up. A couple of the more striking examples are included.

Fly Agaric


Susan West said...

You're absolutely right, Philip, that people freeze up when they hear the word "science," even though their own curiosity and enthusiasm can lead them to contribute to science by participating in crowd-sourcing projects like those you mention. In fact, it's amazing how many of these projects are out there, in every subject area you can imagine. A good resource for the science/nature-curious is, which is a matching service and online community for citizen scientists. I'm one of the team members who helped launch the site in January, and we welcome any and all nature nerds. Come on by! ~ Susan West, Editor in chief, ScienceForCitizens

Philip Reeve said...

Thank you, but I should point out, this article is by Andrew Gorton, not me!

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