Jan 18, 2013

A Great Day In Science for No Man, and Everyman 

A group of people, who do not claim to be professional scientists, have discovered thousands of astronomical objects including nebulas, supernovas, and galaxies.  They are part of a resurgent movement of "citizen scientists," who collectively increase knowledge on a broad spectrum of topics. Recently, one member of the citizen science site Zooniverse, saw something bizarre floating beneath a known galaxy, an odd green formation that stymied even the experts. 

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope

It is now called Voorwerp (Dutch for "object"). Other "Zooites" found what they were calling "peas." The peas turned out to be new, small, round green galaxies that are believed to be the fastest creators of stars in the universe. 

Zooniverse Director Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford, commented, "It was easy to find 'peas' by computer once we knew they were there, but without the human factor we'd never have noticed them." 

Citizen Science, because it runs the gamut from bemused interest to rigor, has accumulated several epithets of late, including the somewhat unruly-sounding “Crowd Science,” the edgy "Street Science,"and the hip “Participatory Urbanism.” There is a folksy, social side to it - websites, meetups, and apps, including the recent SciSpy, through which you can share sightings you deem to be science-worthy. The photos/findings can be interesting, though at times dubious (fluffy cat, chicken in a backyard, someone's foot). Still, it's about noticing, and sharing. 

The more serious of the lot are truly interested in advancing science, and are of varying demographics and backgrounds. They are humble contributors, unlikely to be paid or credited for their work. They are part of a historic tradition that includes one of the oldest clubs to house citizen scientists: the British Royal Society (est. 1660). In its historic heyday, it included scientists and laypeople alike. One of the latter, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, a linen draper and haberdasher, worked tirelessly at his trades until he had secured enough funds to devote more time to his two favorite hobbies - lens grinding (microscopes) and the subsequent studying of tiny objects. Then, for years, he wrote informal letters to the Society, contributing his findings.  He gave the first accurate description of red blood cells. His research refuted the theory of spontaneous generationHe helped lay the very foundations of bacteriology and protozoology. He was eventually invited to become an official Fellow.

The club is more selective now - professional scientists (or scientists "of eminence") only. Many have their discoveries listed alongside their names - penicillin, hydrogen, the planet Uranus.  They have contributed an astounding amount of knowledge to science, to the world. In 2012 they published a study on science as an open enterprise, stating that it, "should be bounded by considerations of quality, legitimate commercial interests, privacy and security." We agree that a closed society of such great minds advances the world of science - this particular one played a major role in engendering modern science - but there are some implicit tricky areas here. Science necessitates a large degree of agreement, and yet benefits greatly from multiple viewpoints (cultural, sociological, linguistic, etc). Science moves forward thanks to the lifetimes of hard work and focus of professional scientists, yet it benefits from co-creative dialogue that reaches beyond their peers, their conferences, their clubs. 

US Poet Laureate (2001-2003) Billy Collins wrote, in his poem Thesaurus, 

             ...I rarely open it, because I know there is no
             such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
             around people who always assemble with their own kind,
             forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors…

How we create and share information is who we are, and vice versa. This begs the questions: Which (cultural, social, linguistic, academic) umbrella do you place yourself under, which organized effort to you support, what club do you join, when you do your science? 

...And our pick this week for most intriguingly named Citizen Science project: The Mastodon Matrix Project

images from http://science.nasa.gov/media/medialibrary/2011/04/22/peas_strip.jpg

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