Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Citizen Scientists Analyze Stardust Data

The New York Times offers this piece on the citizen science project that's studying the results of the Stardust mission, helping scientists find tiny particles from interstellar space.

This project, known as Stardust@Home, is part of what seems to be a growing movement of non-professional involvement in analyzing vast amounts of scientific data. MoonZoo, for instance, has been employing amateur scientists to help analyze mountains of images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and other Zooniverse projects are doing the same thing with galaxies, supernovae, and solar storms.

This is an exciting trend. For one thing, allowing the general public to get involved means increased awareness and excitement for these projects. At the same time, the scientists get some relief from what would otherwise be years of tedious analysis, and regular citizens get to work with data that they would not be able to gather on their own. Putting this work in the hands of citizens also challenges the notion that science is strictly the domain of ivory tower academics.

There is a proud history of amateur astronomers making great contributions to space science. Perhaps the greatest of these was the work of William Herschel, a musician and amateur astronomer (later employed by King George III) who built the most powerful telescopes of his day and discovered Uranus -- the first planet discovered since antiquity. His discovery shocked the scientific establishment of Europe, and he went on to discover two moons of Uranus and pioneer the study of double stars (for more on Herschel and the scientific calamity his discovery caused, I recommend The Neptune File by Tom Standage - out of print, so you'll have to pick up a used copy).

Let's hope these projects continue, and given their success, I think they will. These remarkable collaborations have only become possible in the last few years with the dawn of the internet age... a time when virtually all of our collective knowledge is stored somewhere online, and anyone can read about a topic that once would have been known only to professionals in the field. And anyway, many hands make light work, and when it comes to science, the more the merrier.

Pictured above, from the New York Times: "This scanning transmission X-ray microscope image shows a carbon-rich speck collected by the Stardust spacecraft."

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