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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Calling All Clyde Tombaughs

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/16 at 10:28 PM

In the discovery of Pluto, at least as the story is retold after ca. 1940 in the U.S. press, much of the credit goes to Clyde Tombaugh, the young Kansas farmboy who worked tirelessly exposing hundreds of photographic plates and examining them for any differences that might indicate a planet. His perseverance paid off in early 1930 when he discovered what would become the ninth planet before becoming a dwarf planet. Now it your turn to enter the hallowed halls of astronomical fame.

Astronomy is one of the few sciences in which amateurs can still participate.1 The SETI@home has used distributed computing models to analyze data for the SETI project.2 While we all want to find ET, let’s be clear that simply dedicating your otherwise wasted computer cycles to analyzing data is supremely unfulfilling. You can’t really claim credit for finding something unless you do some of the work.

That’s where Planet Hunters comes in. The website makes available some (apparently not all) of the data that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has collected from ca. 150,000 stars. The site allows users (“citizen scientists” as Scientific American calls them in a recent article) to interpret the light curves from these stars looking for places where the light seems to dim, which could be evidence of exoplanets.

Planet Hunters Wants You

The site provides quick tutorial: five quick steps is all it takes to hunt for planets.

A quick tutorial is all you need to start hunting planets.

The key is too look at these dots, which represent the brightness of the star over time, and look for spots where the brightness seems to dim. This could be evidence of a transit, a planet passing in front of the star and thus obscuring some of the light. The tutorial includes three, fairly clear possible transits. Nevertheless, the people behind the sight realize that you might miss them, so they offer the following words of encouragement: “Don’t worry if you missed them, transit hunting in hard and requires practice!” Just in case you needed a reminder that doing science is difficult.

Transit hunting is hard.

Once you have the hang of it, you get to play with real data. Unsurprisingly, the real data looks a bit messier than the tutorial. If you log in you “get to see the best stars and get credit” for your work. Maybe that’s where the good data is hiding:3

Log in for the best stars, whatever those are.

Planet Hunters lets you do the work and, perhaps, share in the spoils when you discover a new exoplanet. According to the FAQ, you probably won’t find a planet and if you do, you won’t get to name it, at least not officially. But if you do find a planet, you will get partial credit:

If you are the first person to flag a particular transit as a potential exoplanet, and we can confirm that it is real, then we will offer to make you a co-author of the discovery paper. All others after the first will be acknowledged on the website for their contribution.

This is your chance to be Clyde Tombaugh, without having to spend years working on a farm, learning how to make telescopes or where to point them, sit in a cold observatory night after night exposing plates, or spend your days and evenings looking through some special instrument that made some incessant clacking noise. You can pour over data in the comfort of your own home, on your iPad or whatever, while watching your favorite TV show, and drinking a cappuccino. And you thought doing science was hard work.

Notes—
1Other possible sciences open to amateurs might include paleontology, geology, and taxonomy. Various barriers, e.g., expert, technical knowledge or expensive equipment, exclude amateurs from most other sciences.
2This is analogous to the Folding@home distributed computing project to model protein folding.
3What constitutes the best stars? Are they the ones that have been identified as most likely to have exoplanets (and if so, how is that accomplished without being circular?)? Do they have the most easily identifiable dips in the light curves?.

Tags: astronomy, clyde tombaugh, exoplanets, pluto

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Comment posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 12/17 at 02:56 PM

Nice piece. Interestingly, genomics of all things has recently become another science where amateurs are making significant contributions: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101215/full/468880a.html?s=news_rss

Comment posted by Darin Hayton on 12/18 at 12:20 AM

Thanks for the link. It is fascinating and raises some interesting issues about the participation in science. To what extent are these people amateurs who are applying tools created by geneticists to analyze data generated by other geneticists? At one level this seems to be similar to the SETI@home and the Folding@home projects.

A quick glance at the two blogs mentioned in the article seems to indicate that they are using the software Admixture, designed at and distributed by UCLA. They are plugging in data from 23andme and from users. As the person behind Eurogenes 500k SNP claims: “Basically, I’m out to demonstrate that it’s possible to analyze your ancestry in the same way that scientists analyze scientific samples in major peer-reviewed studies. … Indeed, if I can do it, then anyone can. I’ve got a degree in journalism, which, some might say, isn’t really much of a qualifictaion. I tend to agree with such sentiments.”

What does it say about the barrier to participating in science? What does it say about science? To be sure, labs have long relied on technicians of various skill levels. Is this a form of out-sourcing labor?

Comment posted by Nathaniel Comfort on 12/18 at 07:28 AM

I think it’s rather more radical than outsourcing labor. These “amateurs” are doing creative intellectual work. It’s the spread of the wiki model into science--a democratization of what not long ago was the province of a tiny sliver of society.

There could be ramifications for peer review, publication, funding mechanisms, funding levels, technology development,…

It’ll be interesting to watch.

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