Podcast: Citizen Science Answering the Call

Over the past decade, citizen science projects have been popping up in every conceivable discipline, evolving with the internet to bring the power of the public to bear on increasingly large datasets. Astronomy has a long history of amateur involvement, and many projects are now up and running to process piles of data from space telescopes, sky surveys, and planetary orbiters. Today on the podcast, we take a look at a few of these projects to find out why they’re so useful and what drives citizen scientists to volunteer.

Dr. Andrew Westphal of Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratories is the project director and principal investigator for Stardust@home, an effort to find rare interstellar particles embedded in the aerogel detector returned from NASA’s Stardust mission in 2006. In part, volunteers (or “dusters”) are motivated by competition, as their pattern recognition chops are evaluated and reported in real time. 

An aerogel collector for the Stardust mission. The Stardust mission is one of several science projects that has enlisted the help of volunteers to comb through large amounts of data.
Image Credit: NASA

Even more alluring to dusters, Westphal maintains, is the chance to participate in cutting edge scientific investigations, and to know that their help is actually making a difference. And it is! So far, the project has identified three interstellar particles in the aerogel (and, unexpectedly, another four particles hitching a ride on the foil-like aluminum aerogel mounts) and their discoverers have named them Orion, Haylabook, and Sorok.

It turns out that people are really good at picking out patterns, and that’s just what a lot of these large datasets need.

 “There are some tasks that are just easier if you can get 300,000 of your friends to help you out,” says Planet Hunters co-founder Dr. Meg Schwamb, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

 Part of the Zooniverse, an online platform for citizen science projects, Planet Hunters engages volunteers from the general public to look through data from NASA’s Kepler mission for signs of extrasolar planets that have slipped past the automated software routines. Several planets have been found since the hunt began in 2010, including the first planet ever discovered with a stable orbit in a four-star system.

Not to be outdone, Higgs Hunters made its debut this month, making it the first particle physics-themed project to join the Zooniverse. Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider hope that citizen scientists can help them identify “exotic decays” recorded by the ATLAS detector, which can tell us how the Higgs boson — which is itself impossible to observe directly — falls apart after its created in a proton-proton collision.

 If you help the Higgs Hunters team, says Dr. Alan Barr in a video introducing the project, “we might find something completely new and unexpected. You could revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”

At the end of the day, it’s this repeated call to action and promise of scientific return that inspires volunteers to spend their time hunting for particles and planets (as well as a whole host of other intriguing targets). At once an essential data processing tool and a powerful outreach tool, citizen science has a lot to offer for scientists and the public alike. And that’s something we can all get excited about!

To sign up for Stardust@home, visit http://stardustathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/.

You can access all of the Zooniverse projects at http://www.zooniverse.org, or go directly to http://www.planethunters.org or http://www.higgshunters.org to get started.

And while you’re at it, check out http://cosmoquest.org for even more planetary citizen science.

For more on Operation Moonwatch, check out Keep Watching the Skies! by Patrick McCray: http://www.amazon.com/Keep-Watching-Skies-Operation-Moonwatch/dp/0691128545

-Podcast and post by Meg Rosenburg.

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