Saturday, May 12, 2012

Easier amateur science

kw: science, citizen science, collaboration

For many years my favorite monthly reading was the "Amateur Scientist" column in Scientific American magazine. Over the years, I built a small reflecting telescope, which I still use, a crystal radio receiver, and a variety of other small projects. I was often amazed at the skills of the moderator C. L. Stong and the people whose projects he highlighted. In the course of college and graduate school, I found that I am quite poor in the lab and at the work bench. Thus, although I am also a radio ham, I have never built any equipment. I am an "appliance operator," and my degrees are in geology, where I can go out in the field and hit rocks with a hammer, rather than mix chemicals or try to operate a particle accelerator.

In recent years, I have found ways to participate in science that take advantage of what I can do and leaves to others skills I just don't have. It started with SETI@home, which takes advantage of idle time on one's own computer. There wasn't much for me to do but load the software (which is now based on BOINC – more later) and leave my computer running day and night. Then I found Galaxy Zoo, a Zooniverse project, which lets me do hands-on work, classifying galaxy images from cosmological surveys. Presently, I spend some time, on a day or two weekly, on Planet Hunters (also with Zooniverse – more later), which I like even better: trying to detect planets around other stars using Kepler Satellite data.

There is a third kind of project that is even more hands-on: The Great Sunflower Project. I got sunflower seeds of the right variety at the local Target store, planted a few in a corner of my garden, and recorded the wild bees that visited the plant during a weekly 15-minute session of watching. They are in early stages of the work, having been in existence just a few years. As honeybees continue to decline, we need to know much more about native bees, because one third of crops in the US are pollinated by bees, mostly honeybees.

If you want to help with real science, which way would you prefer? Great Sunflower is an example of fully participatory science. It is the most hands-on, but you don't have to handle any risky chemicals! The other two are more desk-based.

Distributed computing efforts such as SETI@home currently number nearly 100. See the Wikipedia list of distributed computing projects. Some that I find interesting are 
  • rosetta@home, which studies the way proteins fold. I have run this one, and it is fascinating to watch the graphic as every possible combination is tried.
  • QMC@home, which studies chemical reactions using quantum physics and Monte Carlo (statistical) techniques.
  • SkyNet, a study of radio telescope data.
The @home-tagged projects and some others use a platform called BOINC developed at Berkeley, and some projects using it are listed at their Projects page. Others use different means to coordinate your computer and their data.

At present, I like best the citizen science projects exemplified by Zooniverse, which is an umbrella organization that oversees ten projects. As I mentioned, I contribute to Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters. But you may prefer Moon Zoo (crater classification) or their Archaeology project, or classifying Whale song.

We can't all be science PhD's and lead big investigations. Most of us won't ever be lab technicians. But projects such as these take advantage of valuable skills many people have, even without studying science formally. Computers can do only so much. What people do with ease, computers find very hard or impossible. Computers plus people can do much more, as these projects illustrate.

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