Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Science

  This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

A while back I wrote a little about the Nobel Prize. Where some of the big discoveries, that change our understanding of the universe, are recognized. Though it does have some blind spots. Only three sciences are included (Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. I'm still refusing to include economics as a science.) So there are many fields that don't have any hope of getting a Nobel Prize. 

But science isn't always about the big ideas. There are lots of smaller problems. So many that scientists ask for help from the rest of us.

Some of these projects are purely observational. For over 100 years the Audubon Society has held a Christmas Bird Count that is being used to monitor changes in bird populations. And if getting out and counting birds sounds like too much work (or too cold), but you like birds you can look into the Project Feeder Watch, run by the Cornell Ornithology Lab. Where people set up bird feeders and periodically count the birds visiting over the winter. 

And next spring after you're done counting birds, you could move on to the Lost Ladybug Project. Like most things in the natural world, the distributions of ladybugs are changing. There are nonnative and native species, and scientists want to monitor how the various species are doing. “But,” you say, “I can't tell the different species apart.” Not to worry. The scientists at the project are able to work from photos. They even give methods for taking good photos of the bugs. This project even encourages participation by children, with lesson plans and other educational materials available at the website.

“OK,” I hear you say, “but I work all day and don't have the energy to do that sort of thing when I get home.” Well, I've still got options for you. There's a group called the Zooniverse that needs some help. One of their projects is called the Galaxy Zoo (where they get their name) which asks participants to help classify the kinds of galaxies found in the vast number of photos taken by the Hubble space telescope. They give you a picture and you help by clicking on answers to the questions about shape. Or if you'd like to be involved in a climate related project, they use people to transcribe the logs of British ships around the world during World War I. The transcriptions will provide weather data points from all over the world which will help better understand our weather.

“Sure,” I once again hear you saying, “but I would like something more like a game I could play on my computer.” Really? Well, OK. I've got something for you too. There is the FoldIt Project which is a video game, where solving puzzle games on your computer provides researchers with information on protein folding. Just recently it was announced that people playing this game had successfully found the structure of a protein formed by a retrovirus (a virus like the AIDS virus), that scientists had been looking for for over a decade. The gamers found it in three weeks.

And there are a lot of other projects out there. Citizen science. There are many places where researchers are looking to collaborate with the rest of us. And it really is collaboration. When you register with one of these projects you're signing up with a real science project, and may even get your name in a scientific paper. 

And if none of these projects appeal to you, go over to Science for Citizens where they have a search engine to find the project that's just right for you. Sigh. I need more time.

No comments:

Post a Comment