Great Carl Sagan

Citizen Science

30 August 2010

A few days ago while travelling in  MRT, I was busy classifying galaxies according to their shapes using my iPhone. Those were images drawn from NASA's Hubble telescope and I was helping to sort out a few of the millions of such images using my Galazy zoo iPhone application .It was a job that could be performed by an amateur whose untrained eyes could easily distinguish an elliptical galaxy from a spiral one and could easily observe unusual objects if at all present in the image. I was asked few questions and with the help of readily available help pages I was able to classify couple of dozens of galaxies during my trip. I was just being part of "citizen science", a modern revolution in the scientific community.

When Sajeev installed a software for protein configuration in our PlayStation3 three years back, I was least aware of the term Citizen Science. Recently while surfing, I came across the term 'citizen science' and came to know that what we had installed was actually a part of Rosetta@home — one of those distributed-computing projects in which volunteers download a small piece of software and let their home computers do some extracurricular work when the machines would otherwise be idle. (source We have stared at  the tv clueless watching movements of the images of proteins folding. 

Citizen Science is an interesting term, a term of the techno savvy generation of which most are experts of few and amateurs of many trades. The growth of technology has brought infinite knowledge right at our finger tips. Google, especially google scholar, is a vast resource of knowledge and there are chances that one can lose focus and get lost and overwhelmed by the information overflow. My curiosity led me to discover that there are various such ongoing projects and a layman can be part of major, large-scale projects just by installing a software and letting it to use our machine's extra memory space when they are idle. The Rosetta@home program is devoted to the complex protein folding which is ultimately aiming at finding cure for major, malignant human diseases. The citizen science is based on the fact that human eyes may be able to perceive connections better than machines which have to work through the programs written by humans where the degree of freedom is restricted where as an intuitive human mind has infinite degree of freedom. Citizen science is a platform for distributed thinking which contributes to public awareness of science and a "green" approach to it, and it patiently waits for serendipity.
How to get started???

Most of the projects use the common platform BOINC(Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) Its an Open-source software for volunteer computing and grid computing. reference :

You may join the projects through the following as well :
 Following are few major citizen science projects on-going and their aims.

  • Biology                                                                      --determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins in research that may ultimately lead to finding cures for some major human diseases.

  • Astronomy -- Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence --Search for interstellar dust in the Stardust aerogel collector.                                                     -- to classify images of galaxies drawn from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, according to their shapes . --search for gravitational waves from spinning neutron stars (also called pulsars) using data from the LIGO gravitational wave detector.
  • Psychology

  • --assisting psychological research on thoughts and feelings.
  • Birds
  • articles on citizen science:

    Zero Gravity!!
    13 May 2009
    Is Hubble Telescope's days numbered?? Yes, as of today. The fifth and final mission to repair Hubble Telescope blasted off from Kennedy Space Center yesterday in space shuttle Atlantis. Another Space Shuttle Endeavour is on stand by in case Atlantis retain any irrepairable damage. This reminds me of the disaster of Coloumbia in 1993 which resulted in the loss of seven crew members on board which included Kalpana Chawla,an Indian-born aerospace engineer who was on her second space mission. She was the first Indian born woman to fly in space.

    Hubble has served scientists since 1990 and has given us profound understanding of the ever elusive universe by sending pictures which could never be captured by any gigantic terrestrial telescopes. Earth's atmosphere which is blessing to us does prevent telescopes from getting accurate images of the vast space and since there is no interference of atmosphere in space, space telescopes does a much better work in capturing and sending accurate images. As any other device, Hubble also needed maintainance from time to time. And after the Coloumbia disaster NASA has been seriously having second thoughts on manned missions to repair it. Also, sending a robot by the Canadian Space Agency was cancelled due to deficit in budget and also due to the fact that robots wont be able to do the high precision repairs which humans are able to do.

    After the Atlantis repair, Hubble could well function beyond 2013 when another Space Telescope, James Webb Space Telescope comes into orbit!! During this mission the crew will also attach an equipment to Hubble which could assist NASA to deorbit the telescope when time is due for it. As nothing is permanent and all that is matter has a life cycle, Hubble too will perish leaving a splendid history of achievements and accolades behind!!