British kid finds NASA mistake: when too many cooks don't spoil anything

Seventeen-year-old Miles thinks helping NASA fix their sensor was 'pretty cool.' Can amateurs really contribute to the advancement of science? 

Astronaut Clay Anderson waves during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Astronauts traveling to and from Mars would be bombarded with as much cosmic radiation as they’d get from a full-body CT scan about once a week for a year, researchers reported in 2013.

The days when a chemist’s assistant like Michael Faraday or a friar like Gregor Mendel could single-handedly revolutionize a field of science may seem long gone, but one British student is showing the world that anyone can play a role in research.

This week NASA is feeling grateful to the sharp eyes of 17-year-old Miles Soloman of Sheffield, England, who was able to help uncover a faulty sensor on board the International Space Station (ISS) when he noticed some wacky readings in a data spreadsheet. His findings add to a long history of amateurs making real contributions to science, a phenomenon many researchers are eager to encourage.

Miles’s physics teacher, James O'Neill, had no idea what was going to happen when he enrolled his class in the TimPix project from the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), an initiative that provides classes with data collected from a radiation detector on board the ISS. By studying the data sets, students can learn about energy and “contribute to research that will improve our understanding of radiation in space,” IRIS wrote on their website.

Curiosity, or perhaps boredom, drew Miles’s attention to the smallest amounts of energy at the bottom of the list, where he noticed something odd.

"We were all discussing the data but he just suddenly perked up in one of the sessions and went 'why does it say there's -1 energy here?'," Mr. O’Neill explained to BBC News.

As far as physicists know, energy can’t be negative, so Miles immediately knew something was amiss.

After emailing NASA, an experience Miles described as “pretty cool,” the space agency responded with more spreadsheets and an invitation to help analyze the data.

They concluded the sensor was registering negative values when there was no radiation. NASA had been aware of this bug, but thought it was taking place once or twice a year. Working together with Miles, they were able to discover that the error was happening every day.

"My colleagues at NASA thought they had cleaned that up," University of Houston physics professor Larry Pinksy told Radio 4. "This underscores – I think – one of the values of the IRIS projects in all fields with big data. I'm sure there are interesting things the students can find that professionals don't have time to do," he continued.

And IRIS isn’t the only organization giving regular people the chance to make discoveries. Foldit is an online puzzle game designed by the University of Washington that challenges players to figure out how to best fold proteins, a complicated problem the solutions of which have applications in biology and medicine. Players compete to find top scoring folds, which experts analyze later.  

The game has led to multiple peer-reviewed papers published in the journal Nature, including one solution that had eluded researchers for 15 years. Foldit players found the answer in less than three weeks.

Automated tools for analyzing protein folding exist, making it an early target for distributed computing efforts, but some problems still require a human touch.

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” lead game designer Seth Cooper said in a press release. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.”

The players weren’t necessarily science buffs either. Just curious puzzle solvers. Hundreds of thousands of puzzle solvers.

“Foldit shows that a game can turn novices into domain experts capable of producing first-class scientific discoveries,” said director of the UW Center for Game Science Zoran Popović.

Amateurs have a long history of playing a part in research, but the rapid advance of information technology in particular has led to a boom in what many are calling citizen science. Now, normal people have access to computers that would have been deemed “super” in decades past, and to top it off they’re all networked for easy distribution of tasks. Sensor-stuffed mobile devices in every pocket only intensify this trend.

“Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of opportunities for ordinary people to collect data for researchers, and sometimes help analyze it,” writes Andrew Maynard, a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, for The Conversation. “Without doubt, the movement is enabling more people than ever before to become engaged in science and to contribute toward scientific progress.”

In addition to ISS sensor checking and protein folding, scientists are turning to citizens for help with star searching, bird counting, eclipse recording, and even quantum computing.

When it comes to tasks like pattern finding and image recognition, citizen science favors a "two heads are better than one" philosophy over a "too many cooks" way of thinking.

Advanced degrees are in no way a prerequisite to discovery, as NASA can confirm. Rather, puzzle lovers around the world are proving that all they need is an internet connected device, some common sense, and a little bit of free time.

After his surprise observation, Miles, for one, would likely agree with Isaac Asimov that “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka' but 'That’s funny....' ”

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