At the risk of revealing my age, let’s just say that I’ve been around long enough to remember that the original purpose of what would later become known as the Internet was the free exchange of scientific data between international researchers and institutions. As to what the Internet has become, I will leave that definition to the individual. Given my well-documented disdain for about 99% of the Internet’s content, I was pleasantly surprised when I located (quite by accident) the Zooniverse (“Real Science Online”) web site, which belongs to an organization called the Citizen Science Alliance .
The operative principle of the Zooniverse Project is the time-tested observation that, although computers are very good at crunching numbers, computers are no competition for the human “eyes-brain” combination when it comes to analyzing the patterns that are often present in pictures. The only requirements to participate as a volunteer in this cutting edge project are a personal computer with Internet access and a natural curiosity about “what else is out there.”
Although the original Zooniverse Project (Galaxy Zoo , which was followed by Zoo 2 ) has been around since 2007, most Internet users are unaware of its existence. In the following sections I will try to convince you that, despite its lack of familiarity, the Zooniverse Project is something that you should strongly consider supporting by becoming a volunteer.
In its current incarnation, Galaxy Zoo is the home of three separate but related projects. Note that each project has its own home page, which includes tutorials on how to gather data specific to each project.
1. Galaxy Zoo: Hubble , in which you are asked to evaluate the characteristics of distant galaxies with the long-term goal of helping cosmologists understand the processes involved in the evolution of galaxies over time.
2. Galaxy Zoo: Supernovae , which tries to detect supernovae in distant galaxies during their early stages.
3. Galaxy Zoo: Mergers , in which cosmologists will use data provided by volunteer analysts to confirm (or reject) current theories of how galaxies interact over both large and small distances.
Since the summer of 2009 the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been transmitting detailed images of the Moon’s surface. Due to the tremendous volume of this data, the Moon Zoo project relies on non-scientist volunteers to perform much of the preliminary analysis of these images.
As with the Galaxy Zoo pages, above, the Moon Zoo team has produced an excellent video “how to” page that explains the project’s goals and shows how you can participate by recording your impressions of the physical characteristics and appearance of lunar craters and other surface features.
Solar Storm Watch
Early this year (2010), our sun entered a period of increased sunspot activity . Since sunspots are closely associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections (both of which could be rather nasty if you happen to be an unmanned communications satellite, a power grid on Earth, or an astronaut aboard the International Space Station), the Zooniverse Solar Storm Watch program has a special need for dedicated volunteer analysts to monitor and track these potentially catastrophic events. Look at it this way: you could be the one to sound the alarm that saves the lives of astronauts on the Space Station!
In the article to follow this one, I’ll show you something else that’s really cool about observing the sun via the Internet.
You don’t have to be an astronomy buff to participate in Zooniverse projects. The Old Weather team (“Our weather’s past, our climate’s future”) is transcribing data from military and civilian ships’ logs dating back to around the World War I era. This project’s ultimate goal is to establish a database of historical weather observations that will be used to mathematically model global weather patterns. To contribute, you download images of actual ship’s logs and then transcribe information such as the ship’s location on a given date and time as well as weather observations recorded by the ship’s crew. As with the other Zooniverse projects, the Old Weather team has produced a “how to” page that teaches you how to locate the relevant data, how it should be transcribed, and how to return your data to the team for inclusion in its database.
In conclusion, I’m certain that once you visit the Zooniverse web site you will be as impressed as myself with the sheer amount of scientific data awaiting even a preliminary review. So, I urge you to drop by this interesting web site and give them an hour a week of your time. Who knows, you might be in the right place at the right time to make a real contribution to science.