The Promise of Citizen Science (Part II)

14 Oct

This is Part II of a guest post by Matthew Francis.

I think one major antidote to the idealized thinking about science is the citizen-science movement. You may have participated in some: these have names like GalaxyZoo (identifying galaxies from large astronomical surveys), Fold-it (solving problems in protein-folding), NestWatch (cataloguing nesting sites for birds), GIMPS (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, hunting for prime numbers), and so on. (Start with The Zooniverse for a large collection in one place; also All of these projects are led by scientists, but the work is done by…well, anyone with access to a computer. Interesting discoveries can be made by ordinary people in this way; the famous “Tatooine” exoplanet, in orbit around two suns, was identified by a PlanetHunter user, to cite just one example.

If these projects are done right, the professional scientists make their citizen-scientist collaborators welcome, and feel part of the team. After all, they are not just helping with drudge-work, though certainly they do assist with something that would take the professionals a long time, simply by the sheer number of eyes looking at the data. I’ve had my students help with GalaxyZoo as a lab project in introductory astronomy, and with a class of 30, we were able to help identify a large number of galaxy types in a 90-minute period. This was a college class, but nothing we did couldn’t be done by high schoolers or even patient elementary-school children.

I’m not saying citizen-science projects are equivalent to intensive scientific training, of course, but they are an excellent way to widen collaborations and engage the public’s interest. Another way they can help is to decrease isolation of people who may feel lost in the world of science, an unfortunate consequence of our information-overloaded society. Most highly-trained theoretical physicists don’t create world-changing theories; it’s a rare person who sets out to change paradigms, and even rarer for that person to succeed. However, a citizen scientist may be able to discover a new exoplanet, or figure out a protein-folding algorithm, or a number of other things which would be difficult to do under ordinary circumstances.

Citizen Science and the Amateur-Professional Divide

Professionally, I’m a bit of an amphibian: as a cosmologist, I have credentials as both a physicist and an astronomer (though I speak astronomy as a second language, with a heavy accent). In fact, in two jobs I’ve held since earning my Ph.D. I was hired because I can teach astronomy, something I wouldn’t really have anticipated when I was taking classes in quantum field theory and other topics in theoretical physics. I also write a lot about astronomy on my blog, though it isn’t specifically devoted to the subject.

I do try my hardest to get it right, though. I’ve met a number of amateur astronomers who are more sophisticated than I am in many respects: they have great equipment (I don’t even own a telescope these days), and really know the subject. I wouldn’t say my background in astronomy is any better than theirs, even though I’m supposedly a “professional” and they are technically “amateurs”. The distinction is blurred even further by the discovery of comets, asteroids, and the like by amateur astronomers, who can often do better than the big observatories at spotting things of that nature. (Astrophotography is definitely an area where the “amateurs” have an edge, too: if you have only one night of telescope time at an observatory, you often can’t spend much of it getting beautiful pictures, as interesting as that may be to you personally.)

I’m all in favor of this. Science is a participatory activity, and the more skilled people involved with it, the better.

More coming soon..

Matthew Francis is a physicist and science writer living in Richmond, Virginia. His blog is http://GalileosPendulum.org and you can find him on Twitter as @DrMRFrancis.

5 Responses to “The Promise of Citizen Science (Part II)”

  1. Richard Francis October 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    It’s interesting to consider how many people in history who would today be considered amateurs or even dilettantes made significant contributions to scientific knowledge. Of course this was before the development of research institutes and even the science departments of universities, but the point is the same: people with time, talent, and interest can still make a contribution.

    • Zephyr October 16, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

      and money.

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