When asked “Who are scientists? Who are the people doing science?” most people imagine some potentially socially dysfunctional male, working in isolation in a lab with boiling things, and electrical things, and stinky things – things that it’s assumed a normal person really can’t understand. While this image makes for good fiction, it hides the real diversity and accessibility of science in many of its different forms. The truth is, today, scientific discoveries ranging from finding new planets orbiting alien stars to refinding lost bird species in the local woods are all being made by everyday people working as citizen scientists in large and small collaborations.
The idea of citizen science isn’t new, but it is having a modern day renaissance. You may have heard this particular phrase – citizen science – for the first time only in the past couple of years, or you may have never heard it before at all! While you may not have heard this trendy meme before, you probably have some citizen scientists in your life. You might have known bird watchers participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count or the Christmas Day Bird Count and reporting their results to the Audubon Society or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You might have friends who are amateur astronomers who chase novae or track asteroids and report their data to the American Association of Variable Star Astronomers or the Minor Planet Center. All these people who are acquiring data and sharing what they see are citizen scientists. This is what citizen science is: Everyday people making it possible for questions to be answered through their contributions of work, data, and time.
It is hard to know when the first non-scientist opted to make a major scientific discovery. People have always been looking up. They’ve always been looking around. They’ve been looking for meaning in the changing positions of the stars and in the motions of the wandering planets, and they’ve been trying to find ways to measure and predict, to use the stars to help them understand when to harvest and when to plant. In the architects of the pyramids and in the masons who built Stonehenge we find evidence of astronomy, and in the carved rocks of Chaco Canyon we see art that points to the equinoxes and solstices. These people weren’t true amateurs astronomers, in the sense that they use their spare time to do science, but then science didn’t exactly exist. The earliest people to study the stars, in fact, weren’t scientists at all, but they were keen observers. In the days before science, when gods were still responsible for the march of the constellations, just being a careful observer in some ways was enough. For several thousand years, understanding the sky and natural world were the subjects for the Magi, for the astrologers, for the priests. But eventually, through the combination of mathematics an observation, the science itself was born.
In the modern era, its thought the first citizen scientists were probably American Colonialists who recorded the weather. From John Campanius Holm recording storms in the mid-1600s, to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin tracking the weather during the founding of America, these men were united in a single purpose: They were trying to understand meteorology by recording enough data that when all their data, and all the data of the people they inspired to help, were all put together, maybe some sort of a pattern – an understanding of when and where storms will hit – could be found in their records.
It was Thomas Jefferson who first envisioned a network of weather observers. According to the National Weather Service, Jefferson recruited volunteer weather observers in six states including Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and North Carolina. It was on the foundations of this work that in 1849, the Smithsonian Institute set up a system for receiving weather data. By 1990, the number of observers had grown to 10,000 stations. This system still exists in the form of the the Cooperative Observer Program, and is used by the National Weather Service too. Today there are over 12,000 stations in the network.
Many of today’s citizen science movements found their origins in the early days of American history. John Audabon is perhaps the most well known of all these early role models.
Audubon was a naturally curious person who at the age of 19, in 1804, figured out that the Eastern Phoebes bird returns to the same nesting site each year. He figured this out by catching some birds and tying string around their legs. For him this was a hobby – a curiosity – of his young adult life. When he got married, he became a business man. But times got tough, and after struggling with bankruptcy he decided to try and make his art his source of income, and he turned his passion for birds and nature into a new career. In 1826, this American frontiersman arrived in England with a collection of drawings. Working with printers, he put together the first the “Birds of America” collection, and then the “Ornithological Biographies,” a book telling the life histories of each of the species he drew. It is this second work that makes Audubon stand out. He was on a mission to not just draw every bird in North America, but to also detail their lives and their habitat. A pretty painting wasn’t enough for this curious man – he wanted to understand the birds and other animals as well.
Audubon wasn’t the stereotype of an animal activist – he was in fact an avid hunter and would often trap the animals he was going to draw so he could better see their markings. But in his later writings, as the settlement of the American West began to have an impact on avian habitats, he wrote extensively about the need to conserve habitat and protect the fragile ecosystems that support so many of the rare and beautiful birds he spent his life drawing. It’s from his work that today’s Audubon Society draws its name, and much of its mission. Based on his ideals, today there are Audubon society chapters around the globe, involving people in tracking the changes in bird populations around the world.
The natural world is a natural starting point for citizen science. It is easy to look around and find open questions waiting to be answered. And to the person finding a giant skeleton in a rock cliff, the “Oh my God! What is that?” question is hard not to ask.
Ichthyosaur on Display at the Hamberg Zoological Museum
As a child you might have learned the tongue twister “She sells sea shells by the sea shore,” but did you know that saying was based on a real girl, and not just any girl, but the girl who discovered the ichthyosaur, the plesiosaur and who realized that coprolites are dinosaur poo? Growing up at the beginning of the 19th century, Mary Annings was part of a poor family in Devon, England whose household income came entirely from the children. Mary and her brother Joseph collected and sold fossils from the cliffs near their home. These children started off selling oddities to tourists from a table setup near the coach stop, but as they gained a reputation for finding complete skeletons, they were able to forge relationships with the scientific community that led to a major source of income. Mary found her first skeleton at the age of just 15 in 1815, and when she was 25 she realized a specific kind of strange rock found in and near many fossils was actually fossilized dinosaur dung, which we now call coprolites. Over the years, Mary Annings labor along the sea allowed her to find several ichthyosaur skeletons, a new pleisosaur species, and many other fish and pterosaur skeletons. While never educated, she was nonetheless, thanks to practice and first hand experience, one of England’s leading experts in fossils, and at the age of of 35 she was awarded a 25pound per year annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science that provided her first taste of financial security.
Never married, Mary Annings died at 47, having spent her entire life walking the cliffs of Devon chasing dinosaurs. What Mary did changed our understanding of dinosaurs and opened the door for 5 year old around the world to dig in their own backyard for their own dinosaur fossils.
At the root of many citizen science investigations is a passion that drives someone to explore the world around them and makes them want to share what they are experiencing with others.
In 1873, William Herschel found his passion in the stars. Between a book he was given, and a friend who talked him into observing, he got hooked. He started building telescopes. He started studying the sky and recording everything he saw. And one day in 1881 he saw a small blue disk and a few days later he saw that it had moved. At first he thought it was a comet – just another wandering traveler shooting through our solar system – but with careful observation he came to realize that he had actually discovered the 7th planet in our Solar System, and the first new planet discovered during all of recorded history. Herschel wasn’t looking to make a discovery. He was just looking. And the more he looked, the more he discovered. Herschel realized as he hopped from known star to known nebulae, that between all the known objects in the sky was a whole host of undiscovered faint fuzzy bits – what we now know as galaxies and star forming regions – all just waiting to be discovered. Over the course of his life, this professionally trained musician discovered Uranus, its moons Oberon and Titania and the two Saturnian moons Enceladus and mimas, and in collaboration with his sister Caroline, he discovered several thousand fuzzy objects that formed the foundation of the New Galactic Catalogue – a catalogue of galaxies still in use today. He followed his passion for the stars until it lead him to a whole new understanding of the cosmos.
Today, amateur astronomers around the world follow in the Herschel’s foot steps, perfecting the designs of their own telescopes, while perfecting our understanding of the nearby universe. There are still things left to find, with new spots on Jupiter, new comets in our solar system, and even new stars forming in the Orion Nebulae all being discovered in the past few years by amateur astronomers working to map out the sky for fun and for pleasure.
Part of the reason that citizen science is having such a renaissance is because we are facing a change in how science is done. Scientists still need help in collecting data and filling the data void, but at the same time, they need your help to look at and understand the data that has already been collected. It used to be that a scientists could spend his life gathering data, and then plugging away, acquiring results at a steady rate, but never suffering from the problem of having more data than he or she could handle. Collaborations with other scientists would crop up, and healthy projects might employ a dozen people that together accomplished a difficult goal, but when they were done, there typically wasn’t all that much unused data for others to forage through. A few years ago this started to change. Scientists found new ways to get technology to help in collecting data, and now scientists have access to data in amounts that were unthinkable before. Perhaps the most widely known example of this is the human genome project. Up until the 1990’ s, genetic research consisted of individuals collecting blood or check samples from collections of similar people – diabetics, cancer victims, people with heart disease and even specific types of unique people. Researchers would pour over these samples looking for ident ical sections in order explain the defect they studied. While this helped us understand pieces of the human genome, we were miles from a complete understanding of what in our DNA makes me ‘ me’ and makes you ‘ you’ . To get this complete understanding, the human genome project developed an automated process to aid in the identification of the 20-25,000 genes in human DNA, and to determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up that DNA. Now, we have enough data to keep at least a generation of geneticists busy.
This isn’t the only case of data flooding a field. In astronomy, data is literally raining down on us in a veritable flood as NASA’s Deep Space Network receives the latest images and other information from the myriad of spacecraft that are exploring our Solar System. Just one mission can easily fill a standard laptops hard drive everyday! The Solar Dynamic Observer, for instance, returns roughly 1.5 terabytes of data per day. Even the elder Hubble Space Station sends back 120 gigabytes a week! For comparison, when Mariner 4 flew past Mars in 1965, it was able to store just 630kb of images! Gone are the days when a single researcher and a graduate student or two could readily process a set of observations on their own.
All of this information fundamentally changes how astronomy is done. Today, scientists have to use filtering software to try and purposely dig the signal they need out of the noise of too much information. Unfortunately, software can’t be written to find the unexpected. Discoveries are become serendipitous. For instance, the first avalanches observed on Mars were discovered by Ingrid Daubar Spitale when she decided to look through a random set of images coming off of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. It is impossible to know just how many discoveries are missed because no one happens to flip through the right set of pictures.
Today’s best hope for conquering this data flood is citizen science. It is easier to train a human mind and human eyes to discern features in an image than it is to write software to accomplish the same task. That human mind is also able to ask, “What’s this weird thing over here?” when they encounter the unknown. The first large-scale astronomy project to train everyday people to accomplish out of this world science was Stardust@Home, a project to look for grains of cosmic dust captured in aerogel by the Stardust spacecraft. Since its 2007 launch, Stardust@Home has not only recovered numerous grains of dust, but it has also inspired a wave of fully online citizen science projects that follow in its footsteps. CosmoQuest is one of these projects, and you can read more about the science we are trying to accomplish in the next article, CosmoQuest Citizen Science Projects.