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Five ways you can do real science from home

By Chris Combs, National Geographic News, from the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas Perhaps it’s a bit unusual to think about doing science. Unless you’re a scientist yourself, chances are, “scientific research” doesn’t come up on the to-do list between toothbrushing and twilight… or so it seems to me. But thanks to the Internet,...

By Chris Combs, National Geographic News, from the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas

Perhaps it’s a bit unusual to think about doing science. Unless you’re a scientist yourself, chances are, “scientific research” doesn’t come up on the to-do list between toothbrushing and twilight… or so it seems to me. But thanks to the Internet, now you can chip in by aiding research efforts in conservation, space, and environmental studies–from home!

At Austin’s South by Southwest Festival, best known for indie music, soon-to-be-famous films, and big-dollar parties hosted by Web start-ups, I caught a panel about “Open Science” with big names from NASA and the burgeoning community-science movement. I’ve distilled their talk into a short list of ways that you or anyone else can contribute to genuine science.

1. Galaxy Zoo


This site might be familiar to those in the space set–long-standing Internet research project Galaxy Zoo lets anyone look at one of bazillions of galaxies found by the robo-scope Sloan Digital Sky Survey–and decide how cool they are.

“It’s people who are discovering galaxies that have never been seen before and getting credit for it,” says Ariel Waldman, digital anthropologist.

You’re shown an image of a galaxy and asked to describe it, including attributes such as whether it’s in the shape of a spiral or whether it just looks weird.


Image courtesy of Galaxy Zoo

The Galaxy Zoo has already discovered a completely new type of galaxy, the “green pea.” And best of all, the web users that said, “Hey, this looks weird,” got credit for it — ten of them are listed as co-authors on the scientific paper.

2. Bird Source

“I’d like to let everyone know that it’s really easy to go outside and look for birds!” says Kirsten Sanford (who runs a “This Week in Science” podcast). And web site Bird Source, which bills itself (pun!) as “birding with a purpose” lets you do just that.


According to the site, it lets you contribute your bird sightings so that scientists can “track and display the density and movement of birds just like meteorologists track the weather.” It is also used to track sightings of endangered birds.

If you’re the first or last person to see a bird in a given area, your name could be shown on the site. I dare you to tweet about it.

3. Team Frednet

Ever designed a lunar lander before? Well, me neither. But chances are that you can chip in on upstart Team Frednet’s efforts to build an open-source moon bot.


Competing in the Google Lunar X Prize, the robot will need to launch from Earth, orbit the moon, land on it, and come back to Earth; the first private group or company to pull this off will win $30 million. Thirty meeeeellion dollllars. Not to say that you’re guaranteed a slice of it by helping out — but the team’s organizers do say that “The team as a whole, in collaboration with our directors, [will determine] the principal disposition of funds.” Suck up and work hard, folks.

Team Frednet is looking for volunteers in marketing, admin, contest ideas, viral outreach, and music, video, and animation.

They’re looking for a name for the bot, too, snarksters.

4. Stardust

Dust is everywhere, right? Actually, there’s one place it’s hard to find–on the receptors of NASA’s “Stardust” project, an ambitious space robot. Stardust snuck up on a comet with the idea of harvesting some of its dust with “aerogel,” essentially flypaper for space dust.

The hard part is that despite its enormous grid of aerogel receptors–a thousand square centimeters, or 155 inches squared–the scientists behind the mission expect to only find about 40 individual particles of dust!

stardust@home logo.jpgComputers can’t be used for the task, because the actual material used to capture the dust is crusty and has lots of imperfections that would confuse image-bots. So if you’d like to aid in the terribly important–no, really–task of finding interstellar comet dust, the project lets you use a “virtual microscope” to hunt for the elusive particles–and if you hit the comet-crud lottery, you might be named in the resulting research.

I found this project from panelist Ariel Waldman’s “Space Hack” site, which also lists a pile of other interesting citizen-science efforts focused on space.

5. SnowTweets

Okay, so Twitter’s an acquired taste, understood. But if you’re familiar with its punctuation and panoply of neologisms, this project might interest you: SnowTweets is looking for people that will tweet about how much snow they get.

That’s it! You just need a ruler, a Twitter account, and the desire to boast about your yard’s slice of future Snowpocalypses.

snowbird viewer.jpg

They’re using the data to populate an internet snow viewer, and the information’s also going straight to frozen-water researchers at the University of Waterloo.

This project is one of a zillion listed at site Science for Citizens, which is a great jumping-off point for finding even more ways to participate in science–counting fireflies, mapping graveyards, and building a laser harp are a few examples I found within a minute or two of browsing the site.

And of course, no mention of open science efforts would be complete without plugging our very own BioBlitz–a periodic project that swarms an area with volunteers who comprehensively count every last critter and plant to be found. It’s great fun and helps us understand the world around us, and perhaps even save a little slice of it.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn