Crowdsourcing science: how gamers are changing scientific discovery
Computer gamers who cracked a decades-long AIDS mystery in three weeks embody a rising trend among researchers: enlisting the skills of everyday people to help with scientific discovery.
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But in some cases, raw computing power is not enough. Scientists need human eyeballs to help analyze reams of images coming in from various scientific fields. To meet this need, Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist at Oxford University, has set up Zooniverse – a budding Grand Central Terminal for researchers who need public assistance in an eyes-on way.Skip to next paragraph
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The scientists aren't necessarily seeking people with advanced degrees. Instead, many projects prize a keen eye, a good ear, or puzzle-solving skills.
For example, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is still in the design phase, will eventually flood computer servers with 30 trillion bytes of data each night. The Hubble Space Telescope, by contrast, spent its first 20 years amassing 45 trillion bytes of data. As these data arrive, scientists will be looking for signs of change from previous views of the same patch of sky. Perhaps a supernova has erupted. Or a new or long-missing comet or asteroid has appeared.
A computer might sort through the data and channel some to computers and some to humans for analysis. If an image is tagged for human eyes, the system might look to see who is online and ship the image to the person with the best track record for identifying similar images.
"Or maybe you're walking down the street and your phone buzzes" with a message that says, "We've got one we really need your help on," Mr. Lintott says.
The most recent project to enlist citizen scientists for analysis is Planet Hunters, which began last December.
The project enlists volunteers to take close looks at the light curves from stars observed by NASA's Kepler mission as it hunts for Earth-size planets orbiting sunlike stars. Those light curves – which trace changes in a star's brightness with time – not only harbor evidence of planets, but also reveal a wealth of precise information about the stars themselves.
Kepler scientists get first crack at the data, but that leaves the door open to identifying planet candidates the Kepler team may have missed. Sure enough, the Planet Hunters team has bagged two new planet candidates after combing through data the Kepler mission's formal science team had already mined.
Since the inception of Planet Hunters, volunteers have classified light curves that would take one person 60 years to process, says Yale University astronomer Debra Fischer, one of the scientists running the Planet Hunters program.
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