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Roll Over, Galileo

A new generation of citizen scientists is taking discovery out of the ivory tower and onto the street

Author Hillary Rosner


ON A SUMMER NIGHT IN 2007, in the southeast corner of the Netherlands, Hanny van Arkel discovered a never-before-seen space object: a gas cloud wrapped around a former galaxy 730 million light-years from Earth. Van Arkel spotted the glowing green blob now known as Hanny’s Voorwerp (Dutch for “object”) while classifying galaxies in one of millions of photos taken during an exhaustive space-mapping effort called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Van Arkel, it turns out, is not a professional astronomer but a 29-year-old schoolteacher and amateur musician. She started scanning the skies as a hobby after seeing some cool space photos on the website of her musical idol, Brian May, guitarist in the rock band Queen. Intrigued, she sought out the photos’ source, a site called Galaxy Zoo. Soon afterward, having sat through a quick tutorial, she set to work.

Unable to process the volume of images they’d amassed, Galaxy Zoo’s astronomers had decided to recruit members of the public to help out. Van Arkel was just one of 150,000 people who contributed to the project in its first year, generating more than 50 million classifications. The project has since received countless millions more, allowing scientists to better explore such topics as bars and bulges in disc galaxies and the sudden deaths of quasars.

Astronomers are not the only experts willing to let amateurs get involved in their work. So-called “citizen scientists” are now being recruited to assist with everything from archaeology to cancer research. Anyone can participate in these projects: Joining generally requires only an Internet connection, a decent attention span and a lot of spare time. True, the trend may threaten to knock scientists out of their ivory towers—but few are inclined to complain about having access to what is, in effect, a million unpaid research assistants.

There have, in fact, been previous large-scale efforts to apply the resources of ordinary people to scientific research. Back in 1999, SETI@home sought to further the search for extraterrestrial life by harnessing unused processing power from thousands of individuals’ PCs to create a virtual supercomputer. The project ultimately failed to turn up any aliens, but it was nonetheless hailed as a mighty success.

The citizen science model takes inspiration from the SETI@home project, only in this instance the excess processing power comes from a far more sophisticated machine: the human brain. And while the idea itself is nothing new—fields like public health and conser- vation have been soliciting input from laypersons for decades— citizen science builds on the very contemporary phenomenon of crowdsourcing, which has systematically decentralized research and development in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

So it is, across the world, that we have attorneys mapping bird migration, bus drivers decoding whale songs and schoolteachers discovering far-off gas clouds. Some projects even require participants to go out into the field. Earthwatch Institute, one of the earliest proponents of citizen science, invites amateur researchers to get their boots muddy in far-flung places like Malawi and Ecuador, for instance.

Meanwhile, an offshoot dubbed “extreme citizen science” aims to help disenfranchised communities create their own projects, and in doing so explore topics that are near and dear to them. In one recent example, an anthropologist at University College London helped (by way of GPS and other modern doodads) a Pygmy community in Congo identify and protect its most valued trees, which were being threatened by the chain saws of a logging conglomerate.

While the benefits to researchers are obvious, many believe that the rise of citizen science will have profound effects on not only the field of scientific discovery, but also the culture at large. If nothing else, the shroud of mystery that has always obscured scholarly expertise is being stripped away, replaced by something more collaborative, more accessible, even more fun. Jennifer Shirk, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University who studies citizen science, is fascinated by the potential. “What might we be able to accomplish,” she says, “if we start thinking about science in those terms?”

Hanny van Arkel now has her own website, on which she shares her musings on a wide range of topics, including what she calls “my object in the sky.” She’s available to do lectures for experts or novices, she explains, and she also has quite a lot to say on the subject of Brian May. Her voorwerp, meanwhile, is being scrutinized by scientists, who would love to find other objects like it—and who would welcome any help they can get.

HILLARY ROSNER, a Colorado-based writer, doesn’t have the patience to discover a heavenly body that’s much harder to spot than the moon.

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