How to Help Scientists Without Leaving Home
Gaze out the window or at your computer, in the name of data.
At Atlas Obscura, we’re all about wonder and exploration—and since many of our readers are spending time at home to stay safe and healthy, we’re highlighting ways you can be awestruck no matter where you are. Read more.
The natural world doesn’t slow down just because humans have to. Outside, buds burst from branches; high, high above them, distant objects traverse the solar system. And while the world keeps going, science does, too. If you have a computer, a phone, and a window, you can help with these citizen science projects.
Gawk at galaxies
From where you sit, you may be able to glimpse a sliver of your neighborhood, with its trees, homes, and maybe a faint, distant skyline. But if you’re hankering for a view that will leave you a little more starry-eyed, maybe you’d like to wander around Galaxy Zoo. There are some 100 billion galaxies freckling the observable universe, and this project, recommended by Sarah Barker, author of 50 Things to See in the Sky, invites participants to log on and classify some of them by shape. The images, mainly captured from the Victor Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile, reveal such dazzling details as how many spiral arms a galaxy has—and those characteristics shed light on whether a galaxy is still revving up for star formation, how old it might be, and more.
The project is run by a sprawling, international team of researchers, and lives on the citizen science site Zooniverse, a collaboration between Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and the University of Oxford. If galaxies set your head spinning, there’s plenty of other fodder for you: you can transcribe labels on old herbaria; tag drone images of Antarctic penguins, their chicks, and their eggs; and help an algorithm learn to identify the sounds of jackhammers, human voices, and other elements of the urban symphony.
Compete with computers by classifying plants
For more than 150 years, scientists thought that two species of liverworts were one and the same. Genetic evidence has since proven otherwise, but they appear “very similar and can be considered what we call ‘cryptic species’—species that might be morphologically identical or near identical,” says Matt von Konrat, Head of Botanical Collections at the Gantz Family Collections Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. Scientists are increasingly turning to algorithms to identify physical traits and to classify specimens, but von Konrant’s team wants to know whether humans have additional (or different) observational acumen than the machines we have built. “Maybe humans might be able to detect something machines are unable to distinguish, and vice versa,” he says.
Humans and machines are currently neck-and-neck, according to Beth McDonald, an intern at the museum who is working on the project as part of her master’s work. You can help the museum’s Cryptic Species project (and defend our species’ honor) by putting your eyes to the test with a short survey. It only takes around 20 minutes.
Survey the sky at night
If you’ve ever been seduced by the stars, you might be miffed by the way that light pollution can blot out the view. (It also screws with creatures’ routines, and mucks up astronomical research.) The Globe at Night project, run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and other groups, asks participants to go out after sundown and see what they can spot. (If you do go outside, remember to avoid congested places and busy times of day, and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines about social distancing, including leaving at least six feet between yourself and others.)
You’ll need to pinpoint your precise location and give descriptive details about the sky conditions—is it hazy, cloudy, or twinkling and clear?—and also about the light sources you see around you, from glowing vending machines to porch lights spilling out into yards. If you happen to have a Sky Quality Meter, which collects precise measurements, that’s even better.
Look for flowers
If the air is heavy with the smell of lilac or dogwood, the National Phenology Network wants to hear about it. Researchers have long been curious about why genetically identical plants behave differently in different places—in particular, when they flower and shoot out leaves. By showing researchers when the flowers burst into bloom near you, you’re helping them get a sense of how environmental conditions affect buds, blooms, and more. To track common lilacs, sign up through the Nature’s Notebook portal. (Flower-sniffing is optional, but certainly not discouraged.)
Whither the weather?
If you notice anything that strikes you as unusual about the weather or season where you are (for instance, if there are more bugs flitting around, or if they’ve swarmed when you wouldn’t expect them to), you can log it in the ISeeChange project. The project, which partners with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other groups, compiles photos and observations about what looks remarkable to residents, and how they’re adjusting.
Watch for moving objects in space
If anyone has ever said you’ve got sharp eyes, you may be just the person for the Backyard Worlds project. Researchers from NASA, the American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere want to learn more about brown dwarfs and other objects at the margins of our solar system. They need hawk-eyed folks to flip through images from NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft and look for objects on the move. The scientists recruit algorithms for the task, too, but it’s easy for machines to miss certain things, especially objects that are faint or packed into crowded corners of the solar neighborhood, says Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History and a co-founder of the project. “The discovery space is still wide open.”
To get started, log on, flip through images, and mark the ones that seem to show something of note. (It might help to do this in a darkened room.) Experts confirm the identifications with the help of telescopes; in December 2018, Faherty traveled to Las Campanas Observatory, in Chile’s Atacama desert, to pinpoint some of the objects that citizen scientists had spotted. Your observations could guide a future trip—and if you become an energetic user, you can snag an invitation to shoot the solar breeze with the scientists in a weekly digital hangout. You could even be a co-author on a scientific paper about your discoveries.
Annotate your backyard
You don’t have to venture very far to find something a little wild. “If people have access to the outdoors, it’s a good time to dig deep and see what’s in your garden—turn over rocks and look for snails and build a species list and see what’s there,” says Rebecca Johnson, co-director of citizen science at the California Academy of Sciences.
Even if you only have the chance to get up close to a single slug or a solitary tree, you can snap some photos to upload to iNaturalist, the vast nature hub that gathers data about species sightings. (It’s run by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.) If you’re not keen to go out and make new observations, you can also just plop on the couch and upload old nature photos still sitting on your phone (ideally, they’d be stamped with the date and location, or you’d remember enough details to place a pin). “It’s a time suck, and that’s kind of what we need,” says Johnson. “It gets you off of Twitter for five minutes so you’re not freaking out.”
iNaturalist could also use some help organizing observations that are a little light on tags. Users have logged more than 33 million observations on the platform, but 240,000 are just a picture and location, lacking any identification. Some identifications do require a degree of expertise, but it’s pretty easy to start with big-picture things, like whether a particular photo depicts a plant or animal, a bird or a beetle. Even that level of information is helpful, because some expert users might have alerts set up to ping them whenever someone tags, say, “eagle” and “Golden Gate Park.” Then they’d be able to swoop in and help out with the heavier lift of identification. “It wouldn’t take that long to make a big difference,” Johnson says.
Be on the lookout for birds
Even if you aren’t able to venture outside, you may be able spot feathered friends out the window. Jordan Raphael, the park biologist at Fire Island National Seashore in New York, recommends uploading photos of them to eBird. A project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird maps bird sightings across the world. “Whether you know birds or don’t know birds, there is a possibility you might see a rare bird,” he says. “In the face of climate change, we might see a fluctuation in species migrating and coming in than we might normally see.”
Raphael typically works at the old, gnarled Sunken Forest, and, like many researchers, is currently ordered to work from home—on reports, grant proposals, and more. Though documenting a few avian neighbors isn’t the same as being immersed in the sea-tousled woods, after many days indoors, it’s nice to get away from screens for a while. “I plan to have a glass of wine and stare at the bird feeder for about three hours after the workday is over,” Raphael says. Maybe you’ll feel the same.
Track your symptoms
If birdwatching offers a moment of blissful escape from the news cycle, this next project is the exact opposite—but it’s important, and a strikingly simple way to contribute to research that’s urgently needed right now.
Know of any other citizen science projects? You can join the conversation about this and other stories in the Atlas Obscura Community Forums.
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