Image Above: YorkU Galaxified Generate your own text at: http://writing.galaxyzoo.org/
By Ankita Das
Being someone who developed a keen interest in science at a very early age I was always looking for new ways to learn and contribute to the science happening in the world. By the time I was in my early teens, citizen science projects were my favorite way to spend time when I was not involved in academic work. I spent my winter of 2010 sending my friends and family a personalized season’s greetings. Except, there was something special about these messages – the text was “galaxified” using GalaxyZoo’s special tool where each letter was a galaxy from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). These were the little ways I would incorporate space into my daily life. But my love for science at that age went beyond generating cute galaxified texts.
Citizen science is often someone’s first introduction to hands-on science. Personally, my first citizen science projects were in Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters by Zooniverse. The Galaxy Zoo project involved classifying galaxies into categories by looking at its shape - something even a child can do but holds valuable science behind the activity. A lot can be revealed about a galaxy just from its shape. For example, an elliptical galaxy is usually an old galaxy where no active star formation takes place and spiral arms in a galaxy imply a rotating disk of stars. The shape classification were according to Hubble’s classification scheme shown in image 2.
Image 2: Hubble’s Classification Scheme for galaxies (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Apart from classifying galaxies imaged by SDSS, my other favorite go-to project involved looking at light curves from distant exoplanets being discovered by Kepler. Kepler’s launch in 2009 marked the beginning of some very exciting exoplanetary science which continues till date. The task at hand was again simple: to look at the brightness of a star over time and determine if there are any periodic dips in the brightness indicating the possible presence of an exoplanet around the star. The excitement I felt as a young teenager “analyzing” data from a telescope launched just a year before, possibly discovering new alien worlds was unparalleled. Participating in citizen science initiatives back then gave me a sense that I was doing something important for the scientific community even as a kid.
Image 3: Example of Planet Hunters task
Citizen science has become an important facet of research in the scientific community today with it having evolved into more creative and interesting projects as new troves of data are generated. Citizen science projects can range from activities as simple as locating constellations with your naked eye monitoring light pollution (Globe at Night) to projects that involve amateur astronomers, photographers, and programmers equipped with certain level of hardware or skill to carry out the science. In this way, citizen science involves diverse groups from our society ranging from kids to amateurs to take part in various citizen science initiatives. For the younger section of the public, citizen science projects can become their introduction to scientific projects whereas it can be a leisure activity for the relatively senior members of our society. To me, citizen science initiatives are a powerful and effective tool for scientific outreach. Not only do members of the public learn about the science that is being carried out, they also actively contribute to it, developing a deeper interest over the years in such projects. Irrespective of the diversity in participation, one thing remains the same, all these groups contribute to our growing scientific knowledge about the world around us.
But can the general public really contribute to the cutting-edge fields in science from their homes or backyards? Yes of course! Over the years, citizen science has churned out an interesting list of discoveries which have made it to scientific journals after being reviewed by scientists. One of the most notable discoveries in the field of space science which comes to mind is the discovery KIC 8462852 or more colloquially known as Boyajian’s star (named after Tabetha Boyajian, other names include Tabby’s star and WTF star). In 2015, citizen scientists who were part of Planet Hunters came across a star exhibiting odd levels of dimming (22%). Upon closer inspection by astronomers, the object’s odd behavior continued to baffle them leading to many people calling it by its nickname – the WTF star which is apparently a reference to the paper’s subtitle: “where’s the flux” (very misleading nickname, I know!). Scientists came up with various hypotheses to explain the star’s observed light curve which included possibilities of obstructions around the star occurring from a ring, planetary debris, or dust clouds. More farfetched hypotheses included the presence of large-scale artificial structures around the star being responsible for the unnatural dimming of the star’s brightness, hinting at the existence of intelligent civilizations. Scientists continue in their attempts to fully understand this bizarre star and hence Boyajian’s star is still being studied and monitored by subsequent telescopes and projects.
I think most of us would agree science has changed a lot since ancient times. Science which started off as independent endeavors taken up by philosophers centuries ago today presents a different picture. The days of sitting under a tree and pondering on the mysteries of the universe and scribbling down equations are long gone. Most science carried out today is in large groups, relying on observed and measured data retrieved from instruments such as telescopes, particle accelerators, and robotic spacecraft. Hence, a huge amount of data is generated and will continue to be generated as next generation telescopes come into operation. Citizen science initiatives are a fantastic way of tackling this big data problem astronomy and space science is to expected to face soon. Thus, citizen science is not only valuable for outreach but also valuable in processing huge chunks of data and making meaningful contributions to the scientific community. A complete list of active and inactive citizen science projects in all scientific fields can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_citizen_science_projects
Read more at:
Boyajian’s star discovery paper: Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 - Where's the Flux? Available at https://arxiv.org/abs/1509.03622