Updated: 09.11.2013

Citizen Science

What is Citizen Science?

Put simply, Citizen Science is best described as scientific research and analysis conducted by non-professional scientists.

One of the most well known Citizen Science projects is the SETI@Home project launched May 17, 1999. For those who are not familiar with SETI@Home, participants load a small program (essentially a screen saver) onto their home computers. When their computer is idle (typically overnight,) this program kicks in and utilizes the computer’s resources to analyze data collected by various radio telescopes (e.g., the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, William E. Gordon Telescope, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico,) looking for “non-random” radio signals that might indicate that they originated from an intelligent, extra-terrestrial civilization.

Beyond SETI

In recent years, robotic missions to the moon, asteroids, and other destinations within our own solar system, as well as deep sky observations by Hubble Space Telescope, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Spitzer Space Telescope, and countless other projects, have provided researchers with an over-abundance of raw data that requires examination and analysis. Although computers are capable of analyzing the data, more often than not, they do not excel at identifying subtle patterns, distinctions, differences, anomalies, or other nuances that are easily spotted by the human eye. But due to the sheer volume of data collected, it would be virtually impossible for any single team of scientists to sort through the data within any realistic time frame.

Somewhere along the way, someone had the brilliant idea of recruiting amateur astronomers and other members of the general public around the world with an interest in science to assist with this data analysis via a user-friendly web-interface. And so was born the modern age of Citizen Science.

The first “modern” Citizen Science project I remember is Galaxy Zoo which asked “Zoo-ites” to view and classify galaxies that had been imaged as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Participants would go through a brief online training session in order to learn about the different types galaxies, as well as to practice their identification and classification skills on already classified objects. Once they felt comfortable, the real work would begin.

Since its inception in 2007, Galaxy Zoo has expanded into an entire Zooniverse that includes studying the lives of Ancient Greeks, modeling earth’s climate change using historic ship logs, listening to whale songs, classifying wildlife on the Serengeti, as well as several Astronomy-related projects. Without a doubt, there something available to suit just about anybody’s interest. And this is just one site. The world of Citizen Science is still in its infancy with more and more sites and projects constantly being added.

How Can You Help?

If you are interested in contributing some of your time for the advancement of real science, all you need to do is join in on any of the various Citizen Science projects that are out there. Poke around the internet. Do a search for Citizen Science Projects. Ask around. You are sure to find something that will interest you.

To get you started, I have listed several of my favorite Astronomy-related sites and projects below.