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On the eve of Thanksgiving, we tend to start our annual pondering about how we might give more to our friends and family, and maybe even to the world. Citizen scientists–whether they consciously realize it or not–are behaving in a uniquely giving mood with every bird they count, PC time they donate, comet they spot, or galaxy structure they visually identify (among so many more important activities!). The efforts of citizen scientists are a pure form of generosity through the free distribution of knowledge.

Scientific advancement through the professional academic universe certainly has developed an entrenched hierarchy of those who know the “truth,” those who are learning the “truth,” and … everyone else. Having personally experienced the educational opportunities inside advanced scientific learning, it would seem nearly impossible or impractical for an at-home, informal learner of any age to tap into meaningful research or scientific discovery. The notion of the average citizen directly contributing to actual scientific advancement would seem counter intuitive–to the professional academic community.

But, with the advancement of communication technologies in the 21st Century, from Internet technologies to hand-held computing devices, the power of real scientific participation is being delegated to the masses. And, the masses are taking part. Profoundly, they are volunteering their time, skills, and general enthusiasm to explore nature and the universe to not only help with the advancement of scientific understanding, but to increase their personal appreciation for that elusive “truth.”

Roger Highfield, former Telegraph science editor and current editor of New Scientist, recently realized this profound volunteer effort of the crowd and how their contributions have been dramatically influencing scientific advancements, and will certainly continue to do so.

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“Crowdsourcing and open source: knowledge is a gift” :: The Telegraph by Roger Highfield :: November 23, 2010 :: [ READ ]

 

Last year, DPR AmSci Journal wrote about a great new citizen science program called Citizen Sky [read from August 26, 2009]. This project is collecting observational data on the current eclipsing of the variable binary star system epsilon Aurigae. The primary star is estimated to be 300 times the diameter of our Sun, and the eclipsing object orbits at about the equivalent distance of Neptune from the Sun.

Measured eclipse durations of epsilon Aurigae
Eclipse durations measurements of epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy CitizenSky.org.

Discovered in 1821 by Johann Fritsch, the system has continued to be a mystery with its odd 27-year eclipsing cycle coupled with a 600+ day eclipse, which has been increasing in length during each cycle.

The most recent plausible hypothesis to describe this interaction was proposed in 1965, which suggests that an edge-on disk, possibly surrounding another star or planet, is orbiting the giant star. This idea was just recently confirmed with the direct observation of the current eclipse from an international team lead by Brian Kloppenborg at the University of Denver, and joined by groups from the University of St Andrews, Georgia State, and the University of Michigan.

Combining the images from four separate telescopes, this innovative method uses optical interferometry to generate a spectacular view of the eclipse estimated to be 140 times sharper than what the Hubble Space Telescope could generate.

CHARA-MIRC Image of Eclipsing epsilon Aurigae
CHARA-MIRC Image of Eclipsing epsilon Aurigae. Courtesy University of Michigan Astronomy

The eclipse began in August 2009, and will be in its dim minimum throughout 2010 until returning to normal brightness in the summer of 2011. Over one thousand citizen scientists have been participating and more are still being requested to help collect as much data as possible over the next year.

With all of the participants in this science program, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens working with the ever-growing collection of real science opportunities for the public, it is interesting to start considering how this participation actually influences the individual volunteers.

Graduate student and staff member at the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Aaron Price, has been developing his thesis in science education at Tufts University to begin exploring this important connection between science literacy and the volunteer citizen scientists. Using a series of pre- and post-surveys administered to actual users of the Citizen Sky project, Mr. Price develops quantitative reviews of how some aspects of scientific literacy can be impacted by direct participation in collaborative citizen science programs.

This type of research should become an important building block for the continued success and development of future citizen science programs. By learning to focus in on how to best connect a broader population into an increased level of general scientific understanding and appreciation will not only allow for scientific advances to progress more efficiently, but the participating cultures will benefit as a whole with more sophisticated ways of living.

You may watch Mr. Price’s dissertation defense live, and even participate yourself with questions, on November 1, 2010. With this streaming event, we should participate as active citizen scientists to help guide the professional scientific community in the underlying understanding of how these projects connect with the participants so that future citizen science projects may be improved and developed with new education innovations.

WATCH LIVE
“Scientific Literacy of Adult Participants in an Online Citizen Science Project”
Time: Monday, November 1, 2010 at 4:30pm (EST)

Location: Crane Room, Paige Hall, 12 Upper Campus Road, Medford, MA 02155

If you do watch the defense and participate, please comment below or on the DPR Facebook page to tell us what you thought of the discussion. How do you feel your personal scientific literacy has changed since participating in citizen science programs? Do you think that these projects are valuable methods for expanding the general public’s appreciation for scientific understanding?

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“Online streaming of dissertation defense about Citizen Sky” :: blog posting by Aaron Price :: October 22, 2010 :: [ READ ]

“Scientists capture ‘terrifying’ Tolkien-like eclipse (w/ Video)” :: PhysOrg.com :: April 7, 2010 :: [ READ ]

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Learn more about the Citizen Sky project and register to prepare to submit your own observations of epsilon Aurigae. There is still plenty of time to participate as the 600-plus-day long eclipse in only half-way complete.

 

You must be quite familiar with what happens when you toss a pebble into a pond. You might describe the simple event as a massive rotating object splashing into a deformable fluid. Or, you might… not. However, astronomical bodies are like these pebbles sloshing around in a deformable fluid, called space-time, and this interaction, too, can produce those expected waves extending out from where the pebble drops.

So claimed Albert Einstein in 1916 when he hypothesized that the universe is filled with special waves, called gravitational waves, that are the rippling effects from stars, pulsars, and black holes… all of which are the massive pebbles in our little pond of the Universe.

These waves of space-time, however, have never yet been directly observed. So, the phenomena, although it might seem reasonable, remains only a hypothesis. This is where the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, comes into play.

Operated by CalTech and MIT, the LIGO device is a giant interferometer, which uses lasers bouncing off mirrors to try to detect changes in the interference patterns of superimposing waves. In this case, LIGO is looking for interference patterns in gravitational waves. For example, let’s imagine two neutron stars far far away that have been stably orbiting one another for a really long time. One day, they fall into one another and merge into a single massive body. That’s a really big pebble splashing into the space-time pond, and the result might be sinusoidal ripples pouring outward from the collision. Eventually, these ripples–which apparently don’t diminish much as they traverse through space-time–come rolling toward Earth, like a tsunami of space-time.

The waves, then, will pass through the LIGO interferometer detectors, which are zapping laser beams back-and-forth and precisely measuring the intensity and time of travel of the beams, and temporarily alter the local structure (or flow) of space-time thereby altering both the physical and temporal paths taken by the high-precision lasers. The detectors record an unexpected time of travel between laser reflections, and so something must of happened to space-time! (Learn more about how LIGO actually works.)

Now, a whole lot of data comes out of this sort of detector. We’re talking 24/7/365 measurements of precision-timed instruments that are looking for a nearly random event that could occur at any instant in time; at time which would be nearly impossible to predict and prepare for. So, you might image that analyzing a constant stream of dense data such as that from LIGO would require a great deal of computation time and resources.

And, this is where the mighty citizen scientist comes into play. Since 2005, citizen scientists have had the opportunity through Einstein@Home to help process all of this data collected from the LIGO gravitational wave detector in addition to radio signals from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. By simply installing a convenient interface program on the computer, the system quietly cranks through all of the radio data and interferometric information, and looks for signs of astronomical pebbles that might be the source of gravitational waves.

Constructed image of gamma rays from the Vela pulsar, spinning at 11 times per second. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, the Einstein@Home analysis is largely focused on the radio data from Arecibo. The idea with this focus is to first detect interesting pulsar systems that can be later used for directly tuning into for dedicated gravitational wave detection. Pulsars are rather exciting massive astronomical pebbles (dense neutron stars) that have extremely large magnetic fields and actually spin at crazy fast rates. These stars are typically 1 1/2 to 2 times the mass of our sun, but about 60,000 times smaller in size. They spin at high rates thanks to the conservation of angular momentum; the large spinning star shrinks in size, so the spinning speeds up, just like the ice skater pulling in her arms to gain speed (view a demonstration).

As recently as last month, and just published in Science Express (read the abstract), the Einstein@Home team and their participating citizen scientists had their first major discovery. With the analysis from the computers of an American couple, Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa,  and a German, Daniel Gebhardt, of Universität Mainz, Musikinformatik, along with the important “ah-ha!” moment from a dedicated graduate student, Benjamin Knispel, a new, and interesting pulsar was discovered.

The pulsar is cleverly named PSR J2007+2722, and is special because it apparently rotates at a whopping 41 times per second, it has an unusually low magnetic field, and it spins alone. Most pulsars discovered to date exist with a companion neutron star orbiting about one another. J2007+2722 likely once had a partner, but it may have escaped or blew up in an unpleasant breakup.

Einstein@Home discovery plot. Left: significance as a function of DM and spin frequency (all E@H results for the discovery beam). Right: the pulse profile at 1.5 GHz (GBT). The bar illustrates the extent of the pulse. Courtesy AEI Hannover.

The discovery was taken from a five minute segment of Arecibo radio data recorded in 2007, but the candidate event was just realized last month after it had made its rounds through the Einstein@Home computer network. Subsequent observations were taken by other observatories, and the candidate pulsar was quickly confirmed. The results having been published in just a little over one month, this discovery is not only an example of a wonderful connection between citizen scientists and professionals, but also demonstrates incredible–and maybe a little rare–efficiency in the science discovery-to-press timeline.

The ultimate goal at this point for the Einstein@Home team is to discover a pulsar orbiting another object with a fast period, say, less than one hour. With this astronomical laboratory tagged, they would be able to closely monitor the system with many observatories at the same time collecting a dense array of information, which could then all be used to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity and his predicted gravitational waves. The second goal is to find a pulsar orbiting a black hole allowing the scientists to explore the unknown space-time directly around the black hole, and thereby having a rather direct look into the mysterious dark pit that defies so much common sense and gives us extreme wonder as to the incredible nature of our Universe.

And, all of these grand adventures probing some of the most fundamental issues of all of physics can be experienced and directly influenced by the citizen scientist. If you would like to participate in basic physics research, simply download the BOINC computing platform, and register (for free) with Einstein@Home. With a little luck, and a lot of background computing time, maybe you, too, can personally contribute the needed resources to discover the next game-changing observation in astrophysics.

NSF interview with Prof. Bruce AllenProf. Jim Cordes and the citizen scientists, Chris and Helen Colvin and Daniel Gebhardt.

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“Einstein@Home ‘citizen scientists’ discover a new pulsar in Arecibo telescope data” :: PhysOrg.com :: August 12, 2010 [ READ ]

Einstein@Home Press Release Information :: [ READ ]

Einstein@Home :: Scientific Background Information (pdf)

“Pulsar Discovery by Global Volunteer Computing” :: arXiv:1008.2172v1 [astro-ph.GA] :: published in Science Express on Aug 12, 2010:: [ READ PRE-PRINT RESEARCH ARTICLE (pdf) ]

 

Last year, Popular Mechanics featured a great “TOP SEVEN” List of most influential amateur researchers today. The recommendations were provided by Dr. Shawn Carlson, a former Scientific American columnist and the executive director of the Society for Amateur Scientists.

From retired computer programmers to high school educators, the list includes an exciting representation of very real science and engineering that is being accomplished by non-professionals without major funding. There are, of course, thousands of amateur scientists and programs out in the world today–and DPR is working to feature as many as possible–but, this is an inspiring group that should get your citizen science brain electrified.

What so you think of these featured projects? And, what do you think is needed to bring these and other serious amateur work back into the top-of-mind consciousness of the greater scientific community?

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“Inside Amateur Science: The Best in Out-of-Lab Research” :: Popular Mechanics :: June 11, 2009 [ READ THE LIST ]

 

This weekend marks the launch of the inaugural Open Science Summit conference in Berkeley, CA. The new program intends to be the centralized resource for the continued development in the scientific community of a new “open source” approach to scientific progress. This path toward enlightenment certainly includes a powerful role of the citizen scientist and amateur research making real contributions along with the traditional institutional developments.

The entire conference is being steamed live online at FORA.tv. [ WATCH NOW ]

Speakers and discussion panels have been brought together this weekend, and include professional scientists, hackers, students, and activists to discuss the future of scientific discovery. Primary topics to be covered include synthetic biology, personal genomics, gene patents, open access to data, do-it-yourself biology, bio-security, and the future of open source scientific publishing.

Drew Halley, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a writer for Singularity Hub, is attending the conference, and will be posting exclusive reviews of each day, so we recommend reading his overviews to learn a great deal about what comes from this exciting new conference. [ READ Mr. Halley’s review of Thursday’s meetings. ]

If you watch any of the proceedings online, let DPR know what you learned. And, we would like to know what you think is important to consider for the future role of the citizen scientist in the progress of scientific understanding.

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“Scenes from the Open Science Summit” :: reason.com :: July 30, 2010 :: [ READ ]

“The Open Science Movement” :: Andrew Zimmerman Jones, Physics Guide About.com :: June 14, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Open Science Summit [ VISIT ]

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Update August 8, 2010:

A final recap report of the Open Science Summit from Ronald Bailey
“Citizen Science, Microfinanced Research, Patent Trolls, and Pharma Prizes” :: reason.com :: August 3, 2010 :: [ READ ]