Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

Nerd Alert

If you thought science and discovery was only for nerds and PhDs, think again.  Computers and technology have allowed some researchers to collect so many pieces of data, that they cannot possibly sift through it by themselves.  Many times an algorithm cannot replace human recognition and analysis, and requires that the data to be examined piece by piece.  This led some groups to reach out to the public for help.

I was first aware of crowdsourcing, in a different form, several years ago when I downloaded Screensaver Lifesaver.  This screensaver used my computer to scan potential cancer-fighting compound structures while I was not using the computer myself.  The University of Oxford basically built a supercomputer through the networking of 3.5 million personal computers, even ones as crappy as my 16GB, 300mHz Dell desktop.  I was amazed when Amazon introduced Mechanical Turk in 2005, a website where anyone can post a project for others to do, or you can choose to do a project, usually for compensation.  Currently, there are projects that pay up to $17.50 for your time, but many are small tasks that can be done for pennies.  I was tempted to use the Turk to help analyze mitochondrial shapes within cells, but never did actually outsource my graduate work (much to the chagrin of my husband who also never understood why robots weren’t feeding my cell lines for me on the weekends).

Image by NASA/ESA

Most recently, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) announced that they will begin crowdsourcing the search for life outside of Earth.  Although they have been using the virtual supercomputer screensaver concept since 1999 to hunt for radio frequency signals coming from stars likely to have alien life, they are now reaching out to humans.  They need people to go through this data because there are so many man-made interference signals, their algorithms cannot distinguish the differences as well as a person.  Anyone can sign up and help the search for E.T. at

The crowdsourcing model has proven to be effective, as new planets have been identified by arm-chair astronomy enthusiasts searching the public images produced by the NASA Kepler Mission.  The Citizen Science Alliance, which works in collaboration with other organizations, now offers many different projects through Zooniverse, where you can search for new planets, stars, and supernovas.  There are even opportunities to branch outside of astronomy, such as categorizing whale calls to try to decipher the language of our wet mammal brothers.

The possibilities of crowdsourcing seems endless.  I am excited that the power of many can accelerate science and discovery much more than previously possible.  Public participation also increases awareness of scientific research and scientific literacy.  If you are ever sitting at home, bored of watching TV, maybe you should pop open the computer and look at some cool space pictures.  You never know, you could be the one to identify a never-before-seen astronomical anomaly.  Projects like these might just bring out the nerd in all of us.


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