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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Crowd-sourced Science

by Gregory Beatty
Published Monday December 21, 10:40 pm
Regular folks take big steps in humanity’s quest for knowledge

Citizen scientists were in the news recently. Maybe you heard about the amateur astronomers participating in a program tied to the Kepler Space Telescope who flagged some anomalies in a distant star’s light pattern.

Those anomalies led to speculation in places such as The Washington Post that we might have discovered an alien megastructure operating alien technology well beyond our current capabilities.

Realistically, it’s probably not a gigantic star-enclosing Dyson sphere but still… way to go citizen scientists! 

The program the amateur astronomers are involved in is called Planet Hunter, and it’s only one example of how professional scientists, with a huge assist from advancements in computer and communications technology, are finding ways to enlist the help of dedicated amateurs. There’s even a formal organization called Citizen Science Alliance to advance the cause [see sidebar].

In the case of Planet Hunter, says University of Saskatchewan astronomer Stan Shadick, amateur astronomers are studying data gathered by the Kepler telescope to see if computer analysis missed anything. “It’s worthwhile, but it’s also nice for people to make their own observations of the night sky and then analyze the data collected.”

One program Shadick is involved in is called American Association of Variable Star Observers. “It does require people to have their own telescope, so it’s probably not for everyone. But if people are interested in astronomy and have invested in a telescope and maybe a camera, they can take pictures of certain stars where the brightness fluctuates over time. Then you can construct a light curve.”

Founded in 1911, AAVSO is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With help from amateur and professional astronomers in 108 countries, it’s compiled an archive of over 23 million variable star observations.

Many variables fluctuate in predictable rhythms, but unusual events do occur. “A few years ago there was a big campaign about a star in Auriga constellation,” says Shadick. “There was a large disk of gas and dust crossing into the line of sight. Thousands of people around the world took observations that were very useful for the scientific study of that system.”

When it comes to astronomy, it’s usually the large telescopes, be they located in space or on Earth, that grab most of the headlines. But because they are few in number, and expensive to operate, access is limited to select projects where maybe one or two nights of data will lead to a scientifically significant result.

Something like the ongoing study of variable stars, says Shadick, “will never be done on a big telescope because it requires so much time. But people with backyard telescopes can make observations as many nights as they wish. In astronomy, that’s the advantage of bringing amateurs into the club. They have their own telescopes, they don’t have to observe every night, just when it’s convenient for them, then they can contribute their data into this large pool and it may become very useful.”

Shadick’s interest in citizen science isn’t limited to his profession as an astronomer. “On the amateur side, my personal interest is bird-watching. Years ago we used to collect data on paper cards. Nowadays, of course, that sort of data-collecting is computerized.”

Researchers at Cornell University have even created an electronic data-base called eBird where birders from around the world can keep a record of their observations.

“The data can be used by professional ornithologists to study bird migration and hazards,” says Shadick. “That’s useful for conservation. During migration periods, for instance, a problem’s been identified with skyscrapers that are lit up at night. The birds are attracted to the light and fly into the buildings and kill themselves. So there could be certain times of the year where it’s important to turn the lights off.”

University of Ottawa started a similar project called eButterfly in 2011 for amateur lepidopterists. The beauty of the two programs is their flexibility. Keeners will likely want to do field observations. But if you have mobility challenges or are elderly, you can participate by watching birds or butterflies from the comfort of your backyard. You can even make observations when you’re travelling outside your home region and enter them into the database.

Citizens & Science

The Citizen Science Alliance is governed by directors from Adler Planetarium (Chicago), John Hopkins University (Baltimore), University of Minnesota, National Maritime Museum (London), University of Nottingham (England), Oxford University (England) and Vizzuality (which operates its web portal Zooniverse).

Unlike early citizen science projects such as SETI@home where people simply use spare computing power to analyze radio signals for signs of alien life, CSA aims to promote active scientific research among its one million plus members.

If you visit you’ll find details on 39 CSA projects including:

Ancient LivesParticipants study images of papyri fragments collected on digs to decipher their meaning and help archaeologists flesh out their knowledge of life in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Chimp & SeeOver 7000 hours of video have been collected from camera traps in 15 African countries. Participants study this video, and catalogue the species and activities of chimpanzees to help scientists better understand chimpanzee behaviour.   

Cyclone CenterUsing weather satellite data from infrared sensors going back to the 1960s, participants study cloud patterns and temperature differentials of tropical storms to categorize their size and intensity. This helps climatologists with analysis of long-term weather patterns.

Floating ForestUsing Landsat images dating back to 1984, participants chart changes in the canopies of Giant Kelp forests in the world’s oceans. Kelp is a “foundation” species that provides food and shelter for small animals such as shrimp and fish that nourish larger predators. Another project called Plankton Portal does the same with plankton.

Galaxy ZooParticipants search over 8000 Hubble Telescope images for formations called “stellar bars” to help astronomers assess the age and orbital characteristics of millions of spiral galaxies throughout the universe. 

Penguin WatchParticipants study images from cameras in Antarctica to identify penguin species. The data gathered helps scientists chart the timing of penguin breeding cycles, nest locations, the survival rate of chicks, and presence of land-based predators such as gulls and rats.

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