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The first conference on citizen science was held in London last week. It assembled researchers and amateur researchers from all over the world in order to discuss how to facilitate collaboration between scientists and amateurs and asked how normal people can contribute productively to science through new digital technology?
During the years it has become clear that there are many good reasons to include amateurs and interested lay persons when trying to solve difficult scientific questions. In many instances they have proven to solve problems faster and better than the best supercomputers, they have discovered new phenomena and helped companies to find smart answers to tricky challenges.
Among the invited participants was Hanny van Arkel, a biology teacher for the Netherlands, who in 2007 discovered a new object in space while participating in the online project Galaxy Zoo. While classifying galaxies according to their shape, she saw a strange green blob next to a spiral galaxy. “It looked like a dancing green frog, really,” she says, “and I just asked the scientists, what it was.”
Hanny’s Voorwerp, as it has been coined, turned out to be a completely new and previously unknown type of object, which astronomers still are discussing lively. Three research papers have been published until now, and she is co-author on all of them. The current explanation says that Hanny’s Voorwerp is a giant gas cloud heated up by strong radiation, emanating from a black hole in the centre of the nearby galaxy.
The discovery by Hanny van Arkel has inspired many people to participate in the growing number of research project, which scientists have put online over the last ten years. Since 2001 the project foldit@home has had participation from volunteers trying to find optimal solutions to the 3D-structure of proteins. The BOINC-interface fra Berkeley University is hosting some of the most well known projects such as seti@home, climateprediction.net, Einstein@home, rosetta@home and LHC@home.
Such cyberscience projects are characterized by utilizing the hundreds of thousands of PC’s standing idle in homes and offices. Right now BOINC has the computing power of three petaflops on 500.000 computers all over the world, approximately 2-3 times faster than the fastest supercomputer.
But the goal is not only the voluntary donation of more computer time. More and more research projects try to harvest the creative and cognitive abilities from volunteers. Hanny van Arkels discovery via the project Zoonivers is just one of several examples presented at the conference. The analytical work by researchers is often very difficult if not impossible to program into a computer – for instance image recognition and other NP-hard problems. For these, the use of amateurs can be an advantage.
It is not only researchers who have an advantage. Also educators and teachers could include such type of projects into their work. Many people are happy to learn science and nothing is more motivating than to help solving real scientific problems. As Hanny van Arken says: “I just accidentally discovered something, but even if you don't, it's fun to be part of real scientific research without being a scientist and for me it's nice to be able to tell people.”
The story of Hanny’s Voorwerp has now been published as a comic, which came out this weekend. It tells the history of the discovery very realistically – the way it really happened out there in real life.