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Increasingly Citizen Science!

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In a single night of observation the VST (VLT Survey Telescope), which recently started operation in Cerro Paranal, can accumulate over 100 gigabytes of data, thanks to the efficiency with which it scans the southern sky. If we consider the four VLT and VISTA, also located at Cerro Paranal, and all other telescopes spread around the world, we realize that the amount of data that is being acquired in a year can be measured in petabytes (one petabyte is equivalent to a million gigabytes), and is likely to continue increasing with an expected growth rate of a factor of 2 every year.

Gigabyte and petabyte

When the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (with a mirror of 8 meters in diameter that will illuminate a detector of 3.2 gigapixel with a field of view of 10 square degrees) will become operative - the first light is scheduled in 2018 - it will produce data at a rate of 10 petabytes per year. To take full advantage of this wealth of new observations it will be necessary to overcome the obvious limitations relating to the availability and power of computers devoted to their reduction and analysis, and the difficulty of teaching machines, through  appropriate software, to solve problems or classify images. But it will be especially the limitations relating to the availability of labour that will affect the ability to obtain a complete and timely return on the investments made in the construction of the new infrastructure.Therefore new approaches and new solutions will be necessary in order to extract the information contained in the data at a rate comparable to that with which the new data are acquired.

Citizen science

A first innovative step was made some years ago with the scientific program SETI@home (see website ) which envisaged the use of a huge number of personal computers spread over desks all around the world and connected among each other through the Internet and to the servers of the SETI project. Those who wished could download a software that, when the computer was not devoted to other things, analyzed radio astronomical data coming from the space, looking for signals attributable to extraterrestrial intelligence.

Started in 1999, in October of 2000 the program had already been downloaded by more than two million volunteers who had given the project a total of over 400,000 years of CPU  for a total of 4.3 ∙1020 flops. In less than two years, thanks  to the availability of a multitude of people, SETI@home had become the largest existing distributed computing project and the largest supercomputer in operation. SETI@home, however, exploited  only a small part of  available resources, that relating to the mere calculation time of otherwise unused computers. It ignored instead the bulk of the available power, that of  the brains of computer owners, who were not involved at all.

Galaxy Zoo

Thus, what today is commonly known as crowd science, or, better yet, Citizen science, was born. In this respect, it is important to remember that it was the Galaxy Zoo project that made this additional important step as it discovered that there are many people around the world who are not only willing to lend a few computing hours of their computer to a good cause, but who are also interested in helping out and getting involved in science projects they consider interesting, putting in their time and intelligence, and helping discover previously unknown phenomena such as Hanny's Voorwerp.

Galaxy Zoo was founded in 2007 with the initial aim of classifying over one million galaxies photographed by the robotic telescope that conducted the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). On the first day of operations the project received classifications of galaxies at a rate of 70,000 per hour and in one year it recorded almost 150,000 participants.

A few years later, another astronomical project was started, Planet Hunters (See here ) that provides the public with data collected by NASA's Kepler satellite, inviting those who wish to observe the light curves of stars and find those tiny but regular dips of brightness that may indicate the transit of an extrasolar planet. A short time ago the Planet Hunters program discovered two extrasolar planets that had escaped the analysis of the Kepler team.

Not just astronomers

While initially it was some  groups  of astronomers who involved  ordinary  citizens in their research projects, obtaining an unexpected participation and success, now there are many research projects, and in many different fields, which are open to the public by providing tools of analysis and engaging it at different levels in the extraction of information that are the basis of scientific discoveries. Currently there are several active projects and many got organized under a common umbrella called Zooniverse (See here ) that is produced, maintained and organized  by Citizen Science Alliance , a transatlantic collaboration  of universities and museums dedicated to public involvement in science.

In addition to the astronomical projects  already  mentioned, there are other projects to study the Sun or the Moon or to discover supernovae. But you can also devote yourself to understanding the language of whales, by classifying recorded pieces  of their conversations ( here ), or to translating fragments of the Oxrhynchus papyri (here ) found in Egypt in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, or also to retrieving meteorological observations recorded in the logbooks of the ships of the British Navy  operating in various parts of the world during the years of World War I (here ), thus contributing to the understanding of climate change. The importance of citizen science is not only the significant contribution provided to analyzing data, which can be measured in terms of results and scientific publications. It is also - perhaps especially - in the new relationship established between the public and the researchers, between science and society.

On one hand, it is an incentive for scientists to open their drawers and cabinets full of data and become aware of the fact that even non-professionals, if equipped with the appropriate tools and reasonable instructions, can contribute to solving various problems. It is also a stimulus for scientists to strive to understand what problems can be solved through the contribution of many people interested in being involved in a scientific project; but also to understand what tools to develop or invent to facilitate people participation and contribution. On the other hand, this is evidence of the interest of many people in participating in the construction of knowledge.

One of the Planet Hunters involved in the discovery of two extrasolar planets says:

«I’m in that paper as one of the citizen scientists, and I can’t overstate how exciting it is for me. It’s really such a small thing, but being a tiny part of the team makes me feel directly connected to the incredible, ongoing journey of scientific discovery» («I was quoted as a "citizen scientist" in the article concerning the discovery and I cannot describe how exciting this is for me. Mine is only a small contribution, but somehow being part of the team makes me feel directly connected with the incredible progress of scientific discoveries")

If popularisation is important for increasing the level of scientific culture, engagement is definitely much more effective. Citizen science is therefore the instrument that allows the much desired transition from Public Understanding of Science to Public Engagement with Science and Technology

But that's  not all...

It's only been five years since Galaxy Zoo and the birth of citizen science. It is therefore conceivable that in the near future new ways will be developed to involve, with mutual benefits, ever wider sections of society in scientific research and thus contribute to the growth of the knowledge society that characterizes our reality and that will dominate our future.

Everything is yet to be invented, but you can already see the first innovative ideas. Foldit, for example, is a video game developed at the University of Washington that allows folding and manipulation of the structure of proteins, in order to help researchers in the study of some diseases. It exploits human ability   to easily solve three-dimensional puzzles (such as proteins ways of folding) that require enormous computational resources. Through this game, in about three weeks, it has recently been possible to decipher the structure  of an enzyme that is essential for the spread of the AIDS virus, succeeding where science had been trying for almost fifteen years without success.

And this is just the beginning!

Source: "Le stelle" - no°104, March 2012

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