Do something useful

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So, you have finished your work for the day. That essay is completed, those papers read, your experiments concluded, and your revision timetable planned. Ok, that is unlikely, but now and again we all need a little relaxation time, whether it be at the end of a hard day’s work, or a much needed break from a mind-bending spreadsheet. It is quite likely that you will turn to the internet, with its multitudinous marvels, to entertain you during your mental downtime. But now Oxford scientists have found a way to make you work, even whilst wasting time on the web.

At the Galaxy Zoo (http://www.galaxyzoo.org/), visitors are invited to classify galaxies from photographs taken by the Hubble space telescope. Sound too taxing? All you have to do is make simple decisions, such as whether the galaxy is round or elongated, and whether or not there are spiral arms. Certainly not something that requires a huge amount of brain power. And you can take satisfaction that your idle clicking is contributing to an immense collaborative scientific effort to classify and understand the types and distribution of galaxies and other odd objects in our universe. What is really cool is that the project uses raw unprocessed data from the telescope, so many of the galaxies you are classifying have never before been seen with human eyes. You can save your favourite galaxies to revisit whenever you want (ok, maybe that is a bit too geeky) and even download an iPhone app to classify on the go (definitely too geeky)!

Galaxy Zoo was first launched in 2007 by researchers at the Department of Physics in Oxford. It has since undergone various changes, as some goals have been completed and new questions arisen. Over 20 scientific papers have been published based on the results, and the impetus shows no signs of slowing. In fact, the project proved to be a flagship for the growing application of web-based citizen science projects.

Collectively termed the ‘Zooniverse’, eight such independent projects have been developed, spanning a range of applications and fostering collaborations between a large number of British academic institutions. All of these projects work on the basic principal of presenting data to an individual and asking them simple questions about it. Two of these are more targeted Galaxy Zoo projects, aimed at understanding the mechanics of how galaxies merge (http://mergers.galaxyzoo.org/) and how and where supernovae occur (http://supernova.galaxyzoo.org/). Other astronomical projects include Moon Zoo (http://www.moonzoo.org/), where participants identify and classify craters, boulders and other distinctive features on the Moon from photos taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; Solar Stormwatch (http://solarstormwatch.com/), which guides users in spotting, identifying and tracking solar storms with information from the STEREO spacecraft currently monitoring the sun; the Milky Way project (http://www.milkywayproject.org/), where infrared images from the Spitzer Space telescope can be annotated for nebulae and poorly understood features; and Planet Hunters (http://www.oldweather.org/) is a venture to record and recover worldwide weather observations made by Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I. Here, users themselves can track the progress of specific ships, and transcribe weather and events from images of the log books.

The projects run by the Zooniverse are harnessing the powerful crowdsourcing capability of the new media, and with over 300,000 active participants across the globe, they are leading the way for mass interpretation of data. Why do we need people to do this? Despite the increasing capabilities of ‘intelligent’ computer algorithms, people have proven better at spotting weird stuff more quickly and more efficiently (even when they aren’t really trying!) than any program we can write. Citizen science projects continue to grow in number and influence, and it would seem that the power of the procrastinating public can finally be put to good use. So go and waste time, and do some excellent science while you’re at it!

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