This past weekend I went to a science-fiction convention named Balticon, where I attended a couple of presentations by an astronomer named Pamela L. Gay, who co-hosts the “Astronomy Cast” podcast and tweets as @starstryder. She is really, really big on citizen science — she is the driving force behind CosmoQuest.org, where ordinary people like you and me can contribute to real planetary-science projects.
Dr. Gay’s enthusiasm prompted me to sign up for an account on CosmoQuest and to start passing judgment on photographs of the craters on our Moon and the asteroid Vesta. Such tasks, individually small in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless important to solar-system investigators, also helped me get through the weekend with my emotions on an even keel.
You see, today marks one year since a stargazing friend of mine died of a massive stroke. I can’t even begin to imagine what the past 365 days have been like for his widow (also a friend of mine). Last month I went to a planetarium show that she staged — it was supposed to be her husband’s show, but she finished the work on it, and I could tell that her desire to excite young people about science was every bit as strong as his.
So, I’m going to honor my friend’s memory by doing some science. Yeah, there’s that whole bit about not having gone all the way to my Ph.D. However, the world now has incredible opportunities for participating in actual science that were not even in anyone’s imagination 20 years ago when I was discovering HTML and studying for my qualifying exams.
There’s not only CosmoQuest but also Zooniverse, which has a huge range of available projects, from classifying tropical cyclone data to tracking California condors. There’s Eyewire, a neuroscience “game.” There’s SciStarter, which has an even broader range of projects going on. The Smithsonian has a transcription center where “digital volunteers” can type up the handwritten words of long-ago explorers and nature observers.
Even when you’re not sitting at the keyboard, your computer can do science for you — just install the BOINC software and let it crank away during those otherwise idle times. I’ve got my laptop running two different BOINC-based projects: SETI@Home and EON. One of these days I’ll have to try something similar for my Android tablet.
Now you have no excuse. Just check something out. Play. Discover. Learn. Do science.