The first time I heard the phrase “citizen science” – actual contributions to science made by ordinary members of the public – it was in connection to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’s (SETI) SETI@Home project. This project took the masses of information downloaded by radio telescopes and sent it to home computers to analyse it when they’re not otherwise in use, rather than building expensive supercomputers for the job. I remember the screensaver being all over the various communities I was involved with.
Citizen science has expanded greatly since then, with the Zooniverse springing from Galaxy Zoo’s various galaxy classification, supernova hunting, crater identification and solar activity searching projects and Citizen Sky bringing variable star observing into the home along with a host of other projects. And now SETI intends to expand its citizen science project too.
Continuing their raft of articles celebrating the half centenary of SETI-like projects, Astronomy Now magazine has an article on the new project SETIQuest. This project is in two bits. The first is a galaxy zoo like thing, where data is taken from the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) and presented to the user in a number of different ways to see if any patterns can be found (computers generally can’t recognise patterns in the same way as humans). The second part is a more interesting thing for those who want to deal with the nuts and bolts of real science. The public are offered the chance to see the source code for analysing the signals and are asked if they can do any better. Now this is the sort of thing that real research careers can be made of if done well (or at the very least, a good few real science papers coauthored with SETI scientists). The signals will also contain (along with a lot of interference) general radio astronomy sources, which can also be analysed and for which computational tools can also be created. A lot to get your teeth into even if there isn’t a WOW! signal waiting over the horizon.