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Friday, February 25, 2011

Try this at home

I was looking through Science’s website today, and beyond a hilarious blog post about what it is actually like to be a scientist, I came across an interesting how-to article. It started with an astronomer in need, Chris Lintott from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who had way too many images to classify and not enough staff to do it. 

In response, Lintott and his collaborators setup a website called Galaxy Zoo to allow volunteers to do the classification heavy lifting. They were hoping for a few thousand helpers, but ended up getting 375,000 and counting. The project has exceeded all expectations, resulting in over twenty astronomical papers and the discovery of two astronomical phenomena, mostly through the help of citizen-scientists. 

The second part of the article gave advice for other scientists hoping to tap into the distributed-thinking phenomenon to assist in their research. The advice boils down to making sure the user interface is foolproof, and providing extra resources that advanced users can harness to really dig into problems.

Citizen science isn’t new, it was first popularized in 1999 by the SETI@home project from UC Berkeley, but it seems to have taken off in recent years. SETI@home and other distributed-computing projects were really just glorified grid computers. Users downloaded programs that ran in their computer’s background, adding their machine to a network of thousands, all combined by software to mimic a supercomputer and work on big science problems.

The paradigm started to shift with Foldit, a protein folding game created by researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead of passively relying on volunteers spare computing power, Foldit enlisted their brainpower. In the distributed-thinking game volunteers experiment with protein folding, determining how a linear chain of amino acids curls up into a three-dimensional shape that minimizes the internal stresses and strains. 

Projects like Galaxy Zoo and Foldit allow anyone to participate in real scientific research, which is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it. Contrary to the common perception of academics perched in ivory towers looking down upon the rest of humanity, most of the researchers I have come across started in science out of a genuine desire to help others. Distributed-thinking is a wonderful tool which allows the people whose lives will ultimately be impacted by the research contribute to the scientific process. 

Check out some of the distributed-thinking games linked to in this post, and the next time someone asks you what you did over the weekend, you can look them in they eye and say... science.

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