May 30, 2020

08.05.11: The Zooniverse & the Dawn of Citizen Science.

Hubble zooms in on Hanny’s Voorwerp. (Credit: NASA/STScl).

Galaxy Zoo. Moon Zoo. Old Weather. From galaxy classification to crater counting, citizen science is growing and expanding in a way that no one would have dreamed a decade ago. Like social media in general, scientific information is becoming something that people interact with and share rather than simply consume…and nowhere is this more evident than in the Zooniverse. Initially conceived as the Galaxy Zoo project by founder Chris Lintott in 2007, the initial project received such an over-whelming response that it has branched out into more than a half dozen projects, including Supernova Zoo,, Solar Storm Watch, and The Milky Way Project, with other projects such as one involving the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the works. All these projects will have you on your way to sifting through piles of data within minutes after a brief tutorial; no technical expertise is necessary beyond a good set of eyes and the ability to click a mouse, and then blam!, you’re straight from off the cyber-street and doing the grunt work of real science! What I find especially intriguing is the unique finds that have come out of the initial Galaxy Zoo project. Originally, the question that the program sought to answer dealt with the symmetry of the universe and statistical population densities of various types of galaxies cataloged; no one would have called the discovery of “peas” or “Hanny’s Voorwerp” as serious cosmological objects. This demonstrates the true power of the project; often, the human eye is able to discern what a computer may fail to see, just because it’s not looking for anything beyond these narrow parameters. Once a Zooniverse project is launched, the truly exciting part is that no one will know the shape it may ultimately take or what surreptitious discoveries that it may spawn.

Do give the Zooniverse a visit; it’s a much better way to spend idle time than watching endless cat-videos or checking on eBay bids (Old Weather, where searchers mull through old ships’ logs, is a new obsession of mine… any hidden astronomical observations in there?) and you’ll be doing real science, to boot!

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