An astrophysicist honors citizen scientists in the age of big data – Science News

The Crowd and the CosmosChris LintottOxford Univ., $24.95

Astrophysicist Chris Lintott had a problem back in themid-2000s. He wanted to know if the chemistry of star formation varies indifferent types of galaxies. But first he needed to sort through images ofhundreds of thousands of galaxies to gather an appropriate sample to study. Thetask would take many months if not longer for one person, and computers at thetime werent up to the challenge. So Lintott and colleagues turned to thepublic for help.

The group launched Galaxy Zoo in 2007. The website asked volunteers to classify galaxies by shape spiral or elliptical. Interest in the project was overwhelming. On the first day, so many people logged on that the server hosting the images crashed. Once the technical difficulties were resolved, more than 70,000 image classifications soon came in every hour. And as Lintott would learn, amateurs were just as good as professionals at categorizing galaxies.

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Galaxy Zoos success helped awaken other scientists to the potential of recruiting citizen scientists online to sift through large volumes of all sorts of data. That led to the birth of the Zooniverse, an online platform that lets anyone participate in real science. Projects on the platform ask volunteers to do everything from digitizing handwritten records from research ships to identifying animals caught on camera to sorting through telescope data to find signs of exoplanets.

In The Crowd and the Cosmos, Lintott, who cofounded the Zooniverse, shares his experiences with citizen science. The book is not a recounting of the history of Galaxy Zoo and the Zooniverse. Its more of an ode to citizen science. Lintott celebrates the successes, exploring the ways amateurs can contribute to science and how that contribution might change as artificial intelligence catches up with some kinds of human smarts.

By no means was Galaxy Zoo the first citizen scienceproject. As Lintott explains, the roots of citizen science go back to at leastthe 18th century. Even Charles Darwin benefited from observations contributedby a wide network of people. The Crowd and the Cosmos focuses on theimportance of citizen scientists in the age of big data and largely sticks towhat Lintott knows best: astrophysics and astronomy.

The book peruses a range of space topics, offering up-to-date,accessible overviews of exoplanets, supernovas, galaxies and dark energy, themysterious force that is causing the universes expansion to accelerate.Lintott is a knowledgeable and witty guide. His humor helps drive the story andeven pops up in numerous footnotes. After describing how he often ends talkswith the idea that, far into the future, the universe will likely become anearly empty void, a vast sea of space expanding forever into yet morenothingness, he quips: I do like to send an audience home happy.

Just as the universes future may seem bleak, so too mightthe future of some forms of citizen science. When Lintott first enlistedvolunteers to help wade through a deluge of galaxy images, computers wereterrible at tasks that required pattern-recognition skills. But times havechanged. Machine-learning algorithms abilities on visual tasks are improving,and researchers are on the verge of automating many time-intensive, oftentedious jobs. In fact, some Zooniverse projects today ask citizen scientists toclassify data as a way to amass large datasets to help train machine-leaningalgorithms. As artificial intelligence continues to get better, will there comea time when citizen scientists services are no longer needed?

Lintott doesnt think so. He predicts humans and machineswill keep working side by side, and at least for the foreseeable future,citizen scientists will still be needed to help train machine-learningalgorithms. But he also envisions these volunteers making other importantcontributions. For instance, he argues that when looking through seeminglyendless piles of images or historical records or even graphs of data, theseamateurs are in the best position to notice something rare or unusual; expertstend to be too focused on the task at hand, and computers might not be trainedto identify something out of the ordinary.

That was the case in 2007 when a volunteer in the Netherlands named Hanny van Arkel found a strange blob in an image and implored scientists to investigate. Dubbed Hannys Voorwerp (Dutch for object), the blob is now known to be a large gas cloud still glowing after being hit by a jet of radiation from a nearby galaxys black hole (SN: 12/23/17 & 1/6/18, p. 5). Researchers have learned that such gas clouds can be indicators that a now-quiet galaxy was active not too long ago (SN Online: 4/24/15).

Lintotts enthusiasm for citizen science and his admiration of the talents and tenacity of citizen scientists is inspiring. By the end of the book, I was ready to sign up for some projects in the Zooniverse.

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