Many moons ago while I was an postgrad in Dundee, when a computer screen was the size of a medium to large beach ball, i.e. the late-90s, I came across a curious project over the then relatively nascent internet called SETI@home.
The project was conceived by the Berkley SETI Research Centre as an initiative to engage with the general public to help address a specific (and possibly the ultimate) question, “Is there anybody out there?”. The premise being that if there are other (extra-terrestrial) intelligent life forms out there in the universe, they may be broadcasting (knowingly or otherwise) their presence and thus should be detectable by simply listening in.
A vast amount of data was collected, consisting of recorded radio signals across a chunk of the spectrum, which then needed to be analysed. The scientific community could not fund/carry out the analysis and needed an “out of the box” solution. Step in SETI@home, where the idea was to make use of the processing power of the vast numbers of PCs that were starting to take up residence within the public domain. The strategy was not particularly interactive and solely relied in the ability of PCs to crunch through the data when not in use by their owner. All you had to do was register and packets of data were sent out to your PC (the University of Dundee’s in my case, ahem!) and your PC did the rest. There was something hypnotic, ethereal and satisfying as the screen presented how much data had been processed and how much more there was to go. Even as someone who only has a passing interest in space related matters, wondering if there were any “curious” signals in the data, how long it would take to get a positive answer and if enough bandwidth had been covered to account for a negative outcome, was exciting and alluring. Though it was not particularly interactive, it did capture the imagination of the wider public and made use of their individual resources to try and answer an important scientific question.
A decade or so later I came across another project (planethunter.org) that pricked my curiosity and again it was a space related project. The premise was as simple as it was unimaginable – spot planets as they traverses across the face of their host star(s) in the line of site from Earth from up to ~1500 light years away.
This however was made possible by the recently launched Kepler space telescope by NASA, which is a space based observatory with the sole purpose of peering at a patch of the sky continuously and recording (every 30 minutes) the light emitted by the stars within its field. Every 3 months or so the data would be downloaded by NASA and distributed to its collaborators within the scientific community for analysis. This involved dealing with an incredible volume of data, for which data processing and analysis pipelines had to be set up for.
Though these were in themselves incredibly successful, it was recognised fairly early on that engaging with the public in a meaningful way would be advantageous, not only to prevent public apathy (which seems to haunt many of these large projects) but also in recognising that any analysis pipeline set up would ultimately be limited.
Analysis of any large data sets requires assumptions, which are usually applicable across the majority of instances but not where there are deviations from the “expected scenario”. The ability of the human eye to perceive subtle differences and patterns was seen as an advantage here, and which, with the right approach could potentially be tapped. Step in planethunter.org (hosted by zooinverse.org) and citizen scientists.
At its simplest level (below), the platform asks the public if there is a periodic signal within the light curve of a particular star. However, the level of analysis could be more complex if desired, e.g. identifying the star type, accessing the unprocessed/raw data and links to information about a stars’ age, its metallicity, a deep visual look into its neighbourhood and so on. There were forums set up to discuss the data in general, reoccurring glitches in the data, individual stars, analysis pipelines for larger bespoke batch analyses and much more.
So did these citizen scientists find anything? Yes, being the clear answer. To date there have been 10 peer reviewed publications and more will no doubt follow
These types of endeavours, where the public can be engaged in a meaningful way to answer specific and scientifically inspiring questions, are important on a number of levels:
- Access to a “free” and potentially vast resource.
- There are important (and sometimes unexpected) discoveries to be made.
- It prevents public apathy.
- Funding (e.g. from the greater exposure of the project)
The question arises that in this age of big data, particular with the explosion in cell biology and disease related big data projects, why do they not also have such endeavours? For such well-funded scientific areas, for there to be only one such endeavour on zooniverse.org (Etch a Cell) is if nothing else sad. Etch a Cell is an initiative led by the Francis Crick Institute where the aim is to engage with the public to help build 3D models of the nuclear envelope from electron micrographs. This is of interest to me and (possibly some) other people in my field of research but it hardly captures the ziet geist as Planethunters and SETI@home did and continues to do so.
Blog written by Tesh Patel