Doing Real-World Science, But Skipping The Ph.D.
IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
A couple weeks back, we checked in on the Christmas bird count. Maybe you were one of those observers out there with your pencil, your binoculars, your GPS. If you think about it, you were really doing research. You were, as a volunteer, tallying up feathered friends. And you really enjoyed it, I'll bet.
But that's over. So now what are you going to do? You want to do something else? Well, do not fear because there's a whole bunch of other ways for you to pitch in to do scientific research as a citizen scientist. How about counting moon craters? Would you like to do that? Or track backyard blossoms? You can measure the letters on gravestones.
And if you're a little more adventurous, you can report back on roadkill. No joke, you can do that if you want. There are tons of projects out there, and that's what we'll be talking about for the rest of the hour.
And maybe you're already involved in a project, and you'd like to tell us about it and tell everybody how they might become involved. We'd like to hear about it.
Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us your citizen science project by writing the @ sign followed by scifri. That's our tweet. But if you put the hash tag, #citizenscience, on there so it's easy for people to find, that will help us, too. You can put the hash tag, #citizenscience on the tweet at SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Let me introduce my guests. Alex Wright is the author of "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages" and a contributor to The New York Times. He's here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. ALEX WRIGHT (Author, "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages"): Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Arfon Smith is the technical lead for the Galaxy Zoo, that is a citizen science project, and the Zooniverse. It's a portal, an interesting portal with a bunch of citizen science projects on it, and that's out at the University of Oxford in England. He joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Smith.
Dr. ARFON SMITH (Technical Lead, Galaxy Zoo, Zooniverse; University of Oxford): Oh, thank you for having me.
FLATOW: Tell us about Zooniverse. What sort of projects can people find there?
Dr. SMITH: Okay. So the Zooniverse is actually - our original project was Galaxy Zoo. So with Galaxy Zoo, we learned that people, just by, you know, accessing our website, can produce very rich datasets by classifying images of galaxies.
So Galaxy Zoo asked people to just look at the shape of the galaxy and say what they saw. Now, the Zooniverse is an extension of that kind of concept, really, and it's - they're all projects that we do where all you need is a Web browser and some spare time.
And we ask people to look at the large datasets that are too big for professional researchers to cope with, and we ask people to make a - do a small amount of work to classify something about an image or a video and basically build up this rich dataset that we then use to do really quite advanced research with the results.
FLATOW: And you don't need any special training to do this?
Dr. SMITH: No, no, this is the aim of our projects. We, you know, some of our projects have a brief tutorial, but some of them are so straightforward that you can really get going without even reading the tutorial. I can't believe I'm saying that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. SMITH: We put a lot of time into the tutorials, but, you know, you can - a lot of them are really...
FLATOW: They're very good. I tried them myself. I can testify to that. But give us an idea of what one of your most favorite projects there is.
Dr. SMITH: So my favorite project right now is probably called the Milky Way Project, which is looking at Spitzer. So Spitzer is a satellite that's out above the Earth now, and it's staring at the galaxy and the galactic plane and looking at the distribution of gas and dust in our galaxy.
And this is interesting because this is where stars - you can detect where stars are forming, and you can't see them with ground-based optical telescopes.
So the Milky Way Project is just the most beautiful project that we've done because the images are just stunning. They're really beautiful to look at.
FLATOW: Now, Dr. Smith, we asked if you had any ideas on how you could challenge our SCIENCE FRIDAY listeners to get involved in citizen science, and you came up with something for us.
Dr. SMITH: We did. So actually on Monday in Seattle is the AAS meeting. So this is the American Astronomical Society. And this is the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, no less. And my colleague, Dr. Rob Simpson, who is actually the project lead for the Milky Way Project, is flying out tomorrow morning to Seattle and will be presenting some of the early results from the Milky Way Project, which has only been running for about a month.
And there are - for us it's a relatively modest-sized project. There's something like 12,000 images in there, and so far we've had about 80,000 inspections of those images. And what we'd really like to do is to kind of hit the 100,000 over the weekend.
So - and at 100,000, we've got about 10 repeats, and this is our first guess at what we think is a reasonable amount of classifications for this dataset. So with your help, we would love to see - we would love for Rob to be able to stand up on Monday and tell everybody that we'd hit 100,000.
FLATOW: Well, we'll try to get some more citizen scientists for you. If you want to help out Dr. Smith and this project, go to our website at sciencefriday.com. We have a link there to make it easy for you to get right to this project.
We need 20,000 of you. We've got 100,000 tweeters. Come on, 20,000 of you can go over there and help go, do, finish that galaxy project so they can get up there on Monday and say they had 100,000 Milky Way people helping them out there.
Dr. SMITH: Absolutely. And we've got a status. So you can see we've created the galactometer. We have a history of making up stupid names for progress bars. So we have the zoonometer for Galaxy Zoo and the moonometer for Moon Zoo, and we have the galactometer for the Milky Way Project.
So if you go to milkywayproject.org/npr, you'll see our current target number. So you can check in and see how far you're getting along.
FLATOW: And if you get lost there, you can go to SCIENCE FRIDAY, and we'll have all that stuff you need to find your way around there.
Alex Wright, you just had a big piece in The New York Times about citizen science. Can you tell us about some of the other projects, citizen science projects that are going on out there?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, sure. I learned a lot researching the piece. There's really a lot going on right now, and I certainly think Galaxy Zoo is one of the great examples of a really successful project that's out there on the Web right now, but in the last few years, it's really interesting. This area really seems to be taking off. And I think there were a number of interesting reasons for that.
I think, like, maybe like a lot of people, my first exposure to citizen science was a project about 10 years ago called SETI At Home.
FLATOW: Oh, sure.
Mr. WRIGHT: Do you remember that? And that was a project out of the - well, partly sponsored by U.C. Berkeley, where they developed a piece of software where you could download it to your PC, and it ran a screensaver, and then it would use your computer's idle processing cycles to crunch data coming in from extraterrest-- from satellite telescopes.
In the wake of that, that technology has since been open-sourced, and now there are a lot of projects out there where you can use this software. It's called BOINC. It stands for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing.
And a lot of other projects have now taken advantage of that to use this distributed computing infrastructure. So there are projects like Einstein at Home that looks at gravitational wave detection. There's the Rosetta at Home Project, looks at protein prediction. So there are a lot of these kinds of projects.
FLATOW: There's this one great - that's folding proteins that I tried today.
Mr. WRIGHT: That's right. That's another - a different project called Fold It. It's like a video game where you basically play with these objects that represent sequences of amino acids, and you try to fold these objects into the most optimal shapes, and...
FLATOW: And you're helping a scientist do that. That's his project.
Mr. WRIGHT: Absolutely.
FLATOW: And the human mind could do it better than what a computer might do?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, what they found, what they're really trying to explore is whether or human brains have a certain facility for solving these kinds of problems because it's actually a very difficult computational challenge.
Proteins can have up to thousands of - you know, a thousand amino acids in them, and that's - there are a lot of possible combinations. And it's hard work even for a computer to get through that.
And so they found a way to take advantage of people's inherent problem-solving abilities without having to make them learn the subject matter.
FLATOW: Yeah, that's interesting. 1-800-989-8255. Joe(ph) in Tucson. Hi, Joe.
JOE (Caller): Okay. Hi there, Ira.
FLATOW: Hi there.
JOE: It's great to be with you. Yeah, well, this idea of citizen science, it's a great thing, and it's something I've done all my life too, also a professional scientist here.
But one of the things I like to do as an amateur scientist is keep track of the rainfall here in the desert. That's a really important thing because, you know, the rainfall can be very scattered and very spotty, that is especially in our thunderstorm season. You know, the thunderstorms are rather small in size, some of them, not covering a big area. So some areas get more rainfall than others.
And the university here, University of Arizona, developed a project to enlist the assistance of, you know, neighbors. And I think so far about 350 of us have sprung up within the Tucson city area, as well as the surrounding county. And it also extends up to Phoenix, which is a good 110 miles north.
FLATOW: So they're all reporting in on when they see a thunderstorm or a shower, they write it down, or they tweet in or file it somehow?
JOE: The observation made is actually the recorded rainfall in your backyard. So you do need a rain gauge. And you can get in rather, you know, at a ground-floor level there, for $5 or $6, for a nice plastic rain gauge and just read it every morning at 7 o'clock and then type in the numbers after, you know, accumulating a month's worth, or else type them in immediately.
And the great thing is that there's instant gratification. You see the results on a map of the state instantly. And you can see what your neighbor got, you know, a half-mile away, how much you received, you know, and there's also a cumulative chart showing how much each site has gotten up to date. So one of the fascinating things out there. Now, I know that there's also a project like this on the East Coast too.
JOE: The one here in the desert is called Rainlog - RainLog.org.
FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling.
Mr. WRIGHT: There's also a project just worth mentioning called World Water Monitoring Day. I think it's in September every year, and that's actually been quite successful. It's an international effort. I think they're expecting about a million people in the next one to take part in a hundred different countries. So that's another one worth looking at...
FLATOW: Arfon, aren't scientists worried that this - that people might get things wrong? That they're not good enough at collecting the data or analyzing it or just collecting? Because they're not analyzing it, right?
Dr. SMITH: Sure. So this - I mean I think that, you know, citizen science ranges from, you know, volunteer computing, like SETI at home, to volunteer data collection, so you know, bird watching, rain collection, and things like this. And then those kind of quite carefully constructed experiences like GalaxyZoo, where it's very difficult to do anything wrong at all.
And I think one of the challenges of citizen science projects, where you do kind of distribute the task of data collection, is actually getting - as a collection of researchers, sort of getting a good handle on the kind of errors associated with an individual measurement.
Now, you know, one of the - that's one of the hardest things in science. So it's just a - it is a problem, but I think it's a problem you can adjust for in your analysis. I think - I think that's - I think that's - I think the benefits of having this distributed network of data points are - far - often far outweigh the potential pitfalls of having a dataset that isn't quite as good as if it had been the same individual taking measurements everywhere.
FLATOW: Alex, do you agree?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, I agree, but you know, it is a thorny problem. I think, you know, GalaxyZoo, I think is lucky in that they have a large user base that they can do that kind of, you know, use that kind of redundancy to control for errors.
But I think other smaller projects have a bit of a challenge. I know one of them - the herbaria@home project in the U.K. has, you know, really just a couple of hundred image - users who are classifying botanical images, and the way they've addressed that problem is to actually have their staff go through and do sort of a quality assurance check manually...
Mr. WRIGHT: ...which is very time-consuming and difficult to scale, so...
FLATOW: I understand that your piece in the Times generated a little bit of controversy on the question of whether citizen scientists are really, quote-unquote, "scientists."
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. It's a really interesting debate, I think. You know, who gets to call themselves a scientist? You know, I was looking into it a little bit, and it's interesting that the word scientist is actually a pretty new word. It was coined in the mid-1800s. Before that, there was no such thing as a scientist.
FLATOW: Natural philosopher.
Mr. WRIGHT: That's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah (unintelligible), they were philosophers or they were - a lot of them were monks and that sort of thing. So the idea of a professional scientist is a pretty new concept. On the other hand, we've had doctors and lawyers...
Mr. WRIGHT: ...and accountants for a long time, right?
Mr. WRIGHT: So - and really, I think, in the 20th century, you've seen science get increasingly professionalized and specialized, and so, you know, now that you know, we have this technology that's inviting more people into the process, it sort of opens up the question of who gets to use that term. It's a - I think it's an open question at this point.
FLATOW: We're talking about citizen science this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Alex Wright and Arfon Smith. Arfon, do you agree, that's a little - what is the definition of a citizen - of a scientist?
Dr. SMITH: I would not like to try and define it for you. I think that it's a very difficult question to answer. I have, you know, I have a - I'm a doctorate of research. I have a degree in - Ph.D. in, you know, what would be considered a pretty, pretty solid science, in astrophysics, but yet still a huge amount of my time as a Ph.D. student was spent just trawling through data, doing repetitive hard work.
I think, you know, I think I know what makes a successful scientist, and I think more often than not it's hard work. A hardworking person usually makes a good scientist because they just put the hard work in that is just the kind of trawling through data, recording observations, and just not having eureka moments. I think the - I think maybe there is this idea in some people's minds that science is just a collection of, you know, deep insights.
But unfortunately, very few of us have, you know, these revolutionary moments in our research careers. Most people just make small contributions that are in addition to the overall understanding, of, you know, of the larger community. So I think science, for me, the act - a scientist increases the knowledge of the human race. So I think that's a scientist to me. Something along those lines.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting point. I mean, one of the criticisms you hear about, you know, citizen scientists using the term sometimes is that a lot of what - the activities that people are engaged in with these projects are fairly, you know, you could say kind of low-level tasks. They're doing a lot of data collection and observation and not necessarily sort of doing the analysis and the interpretation of that data. But, you know, as you mentioned, the fact is, a lot of scientists actually do spend quite a bit of time doing grunt work themselves.
FLATOW: Louis Leakey was on that floor in Olduvai Gorge for 30 years with a toothbrush.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Sweeping away the particles that his wife found, that - what he was looking for. All those years. Yeah. And then you have theoretical scientists who do nothing but write stuff on a blackboard.
Mr. WRIGHT: That's right.
FLATOW: You know, they're not collecting data. They're not doing that kind of thing. They're doing thinking.
Mr. WRIGHT: Right, right, right.
FLATOW: So science encompasses a lot of...
Dr. SMITH: Yeah. And I think just to add to that, you know, we have - there's varying levels of engagement. I mean, the - I think the person who comes to, you know - GalaxyZoo is a website, so websites are notoriously not very sticky experiences for people. So lots of people can come to GalaxyZoo, come for about 10 seconds and then never come back. That's because it's the, you know, the Web. But the people that classify a galaxy and then maybe sit there and look a bit more carefully at the second one, then actually go on to the forum and say hang on a minute, there's something weird going on here. They're already thinking about something about the galaxy. So they've already...
FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. SMITH: ...gone beyond, as far as I'm concerned, the very first level of interaction of I'm - you know, please just answer these three questions. Don't worry about what we're asking you. Just say what you see.
FLATOW: I would think this is also a great educational tool for kids, to be involved and actually see what scientists do.
Mr. WRIGHT: Uh-huh.
Dr. SMITH: Absolutely. Yeah.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. I think a great example of what Dr. Smith just mentioned was actually - on GalaxyZoo there was the user Hanny van Arkel, who did just that, went a little bit beyond just looking at the task that she was assigned. And she noticed something a little bit unusual in one of the photos, and she wrote to the project staff and asked them, what is this thing? And they went back and forth, and it took a while, but eventually it turned out that it was a new astronomical phenomenon that she'd discovered, and it's since been named after her. It's called Hanny's Voorwerp.
FLATOW: How old is she?
Mr. WRIGHT: I believe she's in her 20s. She's a schoolteacher...
FLATOW: A schoolteacher.
Mr. WRIGHT: ...in Holland.
Dr. SMITH: Twenty-eight or something, yeah.
FLATOW: Yeah. All right. This is quite interesting. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Alex Wright and Arfon Smith. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you want to talk about citizen science, we'll get into - one more guest will come on and talk about another example of a project. And tell us what your projects are - 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also go to our website at sciencefriday.com, if you'd like to see and participate in some of these SCIENCE FRIDAY projects. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about citizen science and all the projects you can get involved with, with my guests, Alex Wright, author of "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages." He's a contributor to The New York Times. Dr. Arfon Smith is the technical lead for the GalaxyZoo and Zooniverse at the University of Oxford in England.
I'd like to bring on another guest to talk about a project where you can log some scientific data while you're out there playing in the snow. Richard Kelly is the leader of Snowtweets Project. He's a professor of geography at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He joins us by phone.
Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Kelly.
Dr. RICHARD KELLY (University of Waterloo): Hi, good afternoon everybody.
FLATOW: So while you're making snow angels, you can do some science.
Dr. KELLY: Absolutely. That's the idea. We're trying to see if we can leverage some of the Web 2.0 technologies that are out there to help us with some of the science that we do in terms of climatology and climate change.
FLATOW: And so what are you asking people to do?
Dr. KELLY: Well, we're asking people to really look around them when they're outside and perhaps make a measurement of how much snow there is in their backyard, or on their way as they drive along they can perhaps make an estimate of snow depth. And then we're asking them to tweet that information through Twitter using a particular code, not dissimilar to many of the types of hash codes or codes that are used on Twitter these days.
FLATOW: And what is that code?
Dr. KELLY: It's actually #snowtweets. The project is called Snowtweets, so we use a hash tag, which is a #snowtweets tag, and then all you do is you add in the depth of snow and the postcode for where you are, and then we'll do the rest.
FLATOW: So it's hash Snowtweets. Let's say you want it in inches, centimeters, or it doesn't matter?
Dr. KELLY: The nice thing is I have a couple of geniuses here who can...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. KELLY: ...who can figure out the difference between inches and centimeters. It doesn't matter which way you do it.
FLATOW: And how do you measure snow on the ground from space?
Dr. KELLY: Well, that's really the substantive aspect of why we're doing this. I'm interested in global climatology of snow, how it's changing. I'm also interested in snow from a water resources perspective. We have satellites buzzing around in space right now that can actually do a pretty good job of telling us where the snow is.
And there are several products that the National Weather Service, NOAA, and also NASA have that tell us where the snow is. We can also have a go at estimating how much snow there is on the ground in terms of snow depth. But these are a little bit more uncertain. So we need ground-based information and ground-based measurements to help us. And that's where the Snowtweets Project can potentially contribute to what we're doing.
FLATOW: And how many members do you have at this point?
Dr. KELLY: Well, we are a small team of three - a professor and two very, very talented graduate students - Ray Cabrera and Josh King.
FLATOW: All right. Well, we'll see what we can do to get you some more tweets there.
Dr. KELLY: Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Richard Kelly, thanks for being with us. He's leader of the Snowtweets Project and professor of geography at the University of Waterloo in Canada. And again, if you want to participate in that, the hash tag is hash Snowtweets, then follow that by the depth of the snow and where you - the ZIP code or postal code of where you found that information. Also with us in the studio is Alex Wright and Arfon Smith. That seems like a very interesting little project, Alex.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. Absolutely. That seems - I was not familiar with that one. That's a great example.
FLATOW: And it's a simple thing to do and anybody can do it and be involved in it and, you know, find - it is satisfaction, isn't it? There's real satisfaction of getting involved in these little projects. You're not going to really get paid a lot of money or any money...
Mr. WRIGHT: Right.
FLATOW: ...at all. And doesn't Google have its own set of citizen science stuff that you can get involved with?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. They've been launching some interesting stuff on those lines. IBM has been getting involved recently. They have a thing called the World Community Grid that has a lot of these - you know, it's kind of a clearinghouse for a lot of these kinds of projects. But, you know...
FLATOW: Amazon too is involved?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, they have a thing called the Mechanical Turk, which isn't exactly a citizen science thing, but it's sort of a crowd sourcing platform that - I don't know if anyone's used it for a science project yet but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: ...I wouldn't be surprised, you know?
FLATOW: Arfon Smith, any final recommendations for us? Or any hints of how to be effective as a citizen scientist?
Dr. SMITH: How to what? Sorry?
FLATOW: How to be the most effective as a citizen scientist. What...
Dr. SMITH: I think the thing I would encourage people to do is to find a project that interests them and then go and - I think where the science really happens is when you begin to discuss with your peers what's happening there. So I think, you know, science shouldn't be a solitary experience. I think sharing your thoughts and getting into discussion with other people is one of the most fantastic things about science. So I'd encourage people to come along to the Zooniverse if they're looking for something they can do in a Web browser or if they want to try something at home, then there's lots of data collection projects too. So I would encourage them to get involved and get talking to people.
Mr. WRIGHT: A couple of other resources that might be useful for people who are interested in just looking for projects to get involved with, there's the Citizen Science Alliance, which, I believe Galaxy Zoo's involved with, which is kind of a consortiums of projects. There's also a site called scienceforcitizens.net that is a kind of a clearinghouse, where they try to catalog a lot of these projects and just present a listing, so that you can sort of peruse and so you can see what's interesting.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go Dave in Lumberton, New Jersey. Hi, Dave.
DAVE (Caller): Yeah. Good afternoon. What a wonderful show you have.
FLATOW: Thank you.
DAVE: A steady listener, as well. I'm a global revitalization advocate. And I've written recently about the idea that it would be great if we had a pool for children - anybody, really, but especially for children, because they're such a great source for ideas with open hearts and minds - where they could just go and pour in their inspiration and ideas for how to renew the planet, a region, a community, their neighborhood. And at revitalize.com, which is a new Web tool for revitalization, they can set up a forum for their community or neighborhood and begin doing that using the tools on the website to structure what's called a renewal engine, which has all the components in it to help drive the renewal project.
FLATOW: Well, thanks for sharing that project with us. 1-800-989-255. Eric in Madison. Hi, Eric.
ERIC (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a research scientist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. And related to your previous guest, we actually use satellites to monitor our water quality throughout the state, as well, on one research aspect side of it. But we really heavily on a huge citizen-based monitoring program we have throughout the state, where citizen scientists would go out on the lakes throughout the state and measure water clarity with Secchi disks. They basically lower this black-and-white disk into the water, count how many feet until it disappears. And then we use these data to calibrate...
ERIC: ...our satellite regression model such that if 40 lakes in the county are measured by citizens, well, we can make pretty good estimates about what the other 400 lakes, what kind of - what their water quality is like based on these citizens that are out there collecting these data for us.
FLATOW: Wow. That's a terrific project. Wow. Good luck to you.
ERIC: Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. Jason in Cambridge, Mass. Hi, Jason.
JASON (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi, there.
JASON: I had to call, because you mentioned it earlier. And I've been highly committed to lay biological projects a long time, which is taking roadkill off the road and giving them, like, a decent burial, or something. And I've been doing this for years and have, you know, observed and, you know, done this - I know a lot of the conditions, the road conditions, the type of injuries and stuff. But I haven't - if someone is actually interested in that sort of data, I'd be, you know, glad to pass it along as this project continues.
And on the subject of discussing with one's peers, I've met - in the middle of doing my act of respect to animals - I've met other people who've done - who are doing the same thing and offer to help or watch out for traffic, or whatever.
FLATOW: Alex, any...?
Mr. WRIGHT: You mentioned living in Cambridge. I'm not sure if there's a project along those lines going on in Massachusetts. I know there is one in California. It's called the California Roadkill Observation System, and that's up and running. It might be worth looking into. And, you know, they may - might be able to point you in the right direction if there are other folks working on similar initiatives near you.
JASON: And would I just Google that and find them?
Mr. WRIGHT: It - you should be able to find it that way. Yeah.
JASON: Great. Thank you so much.
Mr. WRIGHT: Sure thing.
FLATOW: Thank you very much. There's a - somebody's collecting - there'd been books written on roadkill. I have some of them in my office...
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: ...how to identify what it is, you know, from roadkill. There's - there were books written on how to identify what's on your windshield...
Mr. WRIGHT: Interesting.
FLATOW: ...the bugs that get killed on it.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, people are coming up with some really interesting, offbeat kinds of projects. There's another one called the Gravestone Project, where you...
FLATOW: Tell us about that.
Mr. WRIGHT: That's where - there's a group that's trying to look at the acidity of rainfall by having people go out into graveyards. And what they're finding is that gravestones are actually - provide excellent indications of changes in the acidity of rainfall over time, because they've been there for a long time. And they basically - the people who participate in the project use a little device called a micrometer. And they go out and they take measurements, and then they contribute them. And so they go out and they transmit the location, and then they gather this data on it. It seems to be working.
FLATOW: Well, I just got a little hint in my earphones, wildlifecrossing.net/california. That is the roadkill central, I guess we'll call it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: If you want to report and be a citizen scientist and report roadkill. You know, I guess there are all kinds of things if you - remember, when I was a kid, spotting satellites and things like that. There's...
Dr. SMITH: Mm-hmm. Yeah. There's some great projects for kids. There's one called Pigeon Watch that's sponsored by Cornell. It's specifically geared for, sort of, urban kids who maybe don't have a lot of ability to go out in the, kind of, in the wild. But they can go and capture observations about pigeons in the city and submit them. Cornell does a lot of work in this area.
Mr. WRIGHT: They do a project called Nest Watch, as well, which is a national project, where they try to get data about birds' nesting habits. And they're actually using that right now to track the impact of the Gulf oil spill. And that's yielding some really useful information, it seems.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And anything else that you want to point out? I mean...
Dr. SMITH: I mean, there are hundreds and hundreds of these projects. It's hard to know where to start. But that's...
FLATOW: And I'm sure it's easy to find them on the Internet, if you end up looking.
Mr. WRIGHT: They're kind of all over the place. But you have to - it takes a little digging. But they're not that hard to find.
FLATOW: Arfon, what about this Ship Weather project?
Dr. SMITH: Yes. So this was a bit of a different project for us. You know, we're aiming at the Zooniverse to be a place where people can find projects where they're pretty much guaranteed that their efforts will produce a real academic output - so we call, you know, papers and academic journals.
Dr. SMITH: And up until Old Weather, which is oldweather.org, we haven't actually done anything other than astronomical research. So we - we're astronomers. We know lots of other astronomers, so we need planetary scientists at Moon Zoo. And, you know, it was a while before we spotted a really great project that we thought our community could contribute to that wasn't astronomy research. And this is a project called Old Weather. And Old Weather asks people to look at Royal Navy logbooks from the First World War, what they call the extended First World War period, so from about 1913 to about 1923.
And the great thing about military naval vessels is that six times a day, they record the weather. They record what the sky is like, what the sea is like, the temperature of the sea, the temperature of the air, and just general conditions, measurements.
So - and, of course, because ships move around, you basically have this mobile weather station that's sampling the weather at an individual time. And these are calibrated scientific instruments, trained...
FLATOW: And you can collect this data from all these records, the ship records?
Dr. SMITH: Yeah. So the National Archives in the U.K. have huge, huge numbers of these ships' logbooks that have been digitized, and they're just sitting there, waiting to be - they call it keyed, so actually transcribing the records out of these logs.
And, yeah. So we've got about 250 ships from the First World War, and it's about 250,000 log pages in there. And we've been asking people to transcribe the data from these logs. And the point about - the value of the dataset is that, actually, modern climate researchers are very, very interested in what was happening with the weather 100 years ago, because it allows them to test their models.
If you can build a model that can accurately tell you what the weather was doing 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, yesterday, then you can begin to get a better handle on what the weather will be doing in 50 years' time, as well.
FLATOW: Wow. We're talking...
Dr. SMITH: They call it - they call it atmospheric reconstruction model. So they reconstruct the weather. And to know if you're getting it right, you need to have lots of observations of old weather.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about citizen science this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Alex Wright and Arfon Smith. I want to thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, thanks so much.
Dr. SMITH: You're welcome.
Mr. WRIGHT: This was a lot of fun.
FLATOW: It's a lot of - yes, very interesting information. If you want to be part of any of these, go to our website at sciencefriday.com. We've got all kinds of resources for you to participate as a citizen science. Alex Wright is author of "Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages." Arfon Smith, technical lead for the Galaxy Zoo and the Zooniverse, a terrific site also for you to check out at the University of Oxford in England.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.