If you’re reading this blog you are probably at least vaguely interested in science. However, you are also more than likely of the view that real science is done at high levels by people who are very clever and very well trained (and who you might one day hope to become one of).
These days though, citizen science projects are becoming more widespread, meaning that anyone can take part in a little bit of science for themselves. You might have seen on the BBC’s Stargazing Live programmes recently, that volunteers were asked to head online to help spot gravitational lenses from a bank of astronomical pictures. They were incredibly successful- over six and a half million images were classified and fifty candidates for gravitational lenses discovered.
Online Astronomy isn’t the only way anyone can get involved. The history of important scientific discoveries is littered with people who had little or no formal scientific training: Gregor Mendel, Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison and Charles Darwin to name just four. Even these days not all science needs a Large Hadron Collider and a PHD to participate in. So, if you are waiting to come to university, or even if you have absolutely no interest in science as a career, that does not mean that it is not for you.
So without further ado, I present to you five ways to keep up with and get involved in science (and maybe even have fun) :
1. Take part in Citizen Science Projects
These are projects where scientists either use the general public to help them collect data (for example to map light pollution, types of trees or even road kill which can all be found at http://scistarter.com/index.html) or help them analyse existing data (to find exoplanets, gravitational lenses or analyse cancer data at https://www.zooniverse.org/).
I particularly like Galaxy Zoo, where you can click through real images of galaxies and classify their type and help spot any unusual features. These projects actually do help scientists analyse data that is difficult to do by computer. Planet Hunters published a paper announcing the discovery of 14 new candidate exoplanets all discovered by citizen scientists using Kepler’s data.
There are so many interesting projects out there that I will probably do another blog elaborating on citizen science later.
2. Play science games.
These are, strictly speaking, citizen science projects too, but they are more um, accidental. Instead of learning how to classify galaxies, you could instead be playing Quantum Moves online, which involves moving atoms around with lasers to help researchers overcome problems in building quantum computers. Or you could match patterns in multi-coloured leaves in a facebook game called Fraxinus that correspond to potential genetic variations causing resistance in Ash Trees from a fatal disease.
3. Follow science communicating YouTube channels
There is a lot of science media out there- podcasts, websites, radio shows etc. but especially if you are not completely sold on the idea of learning about science for its own sake and prefer your theories to come in short bites with a little light comedy involved, then I would recommend YouTube.
Minute Physics, SciShow and Veritasium are some to get your started but there are thousands of others, catering for all sciences.
4. Watch the launch of the next space mission.
NASA, ESA and now even the private space company SpaceX often supply live feeds so that it is possible to watch the launch of a rocket and the anxious expressions of the people in the control rooms. Though I am a huge fan of cosmology, sometimes it is easy to be left underwhelmed by hearing about what new remote exoplanet or galaxy has been discovered. Watching a space mission take off or land really gives you a sense of just how huge an undertaking it is and what it is like to be involved.
The Curiosity landing in particular was tremendous to watch live. NASA had prepared a video demonstrating what Curiosity would be doing in the ‘seven minutes of terror’ of its final descent. The whole landing was fully automated, and for fourteen slow, slow minutes, the radio signals travelled back from the Mars to finally tell the scientists whether or not it had been completed successfully. As well as the sheer drama and brilliance of the technology involved, some of the characters in mission control were also hilarious. One guy (who can be found on twitter @tweetsoutloud) even had the American stars and stripes sprayed onto his Mohawk.
Next time one comes up, watch it!
5. Donate your computer’s idle time to SETI or another scientific organisation
There are more than one billion PCs in the world, and often scientific projects need vast amounts of computing power. Supercomputers are costly to use, so volunteering your own computer to helping a project of your choice means that you can help worthwhile research that may otherwise not be done. Open-source software such as BOINC can be downloaded to your computer so that you can pick a project whose aims you like the look of and get donating.
This list is really to say nothing of the many science festivals, exhibits, articles, websites, twitter accounts, blogs and apps that are out there.
I hope that you have fun trying out real science for yourself : )
(Oh, and gravitational lenses are when light from distant galaxies is bent around a galaxy in between us and it, by the in-between galaxy’s mass. It allows a comparison of the mass of the Galaxy doing the bending and the amount of stars in it, so it is possible to calculate how much Dark Matter it has. #scienceswag)