How people power can be the key to scientific success
With a million images of galaxies to classify and no computer program up to the task the Galaxy Zoo team had one big scientific headache: ‘I classified about 50,000 galaxies myself in a week,’ said astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski, ‘it was really hard work.’ Even with the help of colleagues at this rate it could take many months, even years, to achieve their objective. Yet, just three days later, the team had 1.6 million galaxy classifications and were able to massively expand the scope of their original project.
How did they do it? By, in three days, recruiting 40,000 members of the public to register on the www.galaxyzoo.org website and start classifying galaxies. This number rose to over 100,000 armchair astronomers following the July 2007 launch and would lead to their new target of having every galaxy classified over 30 times being met by November 2007. ‘The response has been amazing,’ said Dr Chris Lintott who leads the Galaxy Zoo team at Oxford, ‘we thought people would be interested in the project but the enthusiasm and dedication shown by our volunteers, as well as the sheer number of people getting involved, is unbelievable.’
Galaxy Zoo is just the latest Oxford initiative to get non-scientists involved in science. ClimatePrediction.net was launched in September 2003 to use the power of people’s home computers to investigate state-of-the-art climate models. It would go on to become the world’s largest experiment to try and produce a forecast of climate in the 21st Century. February 2006 saw the www.climateprediction.net researchers team up with the BBC for the BBC Climate Change Experiment that was nominated for a BAFTA and, in October 2007, won the internet category of the Prix Europa media awards. The Screensaver Lifesaver Project (www.chem.ox.ac.uk/curecancer) also got people to donate their home computing power, this time to screen 3.5 billion molecules for cancer-fighting potential. The project, which finished in April 2007, ran for six years and made use of 450,000 years of screensaver time to determine which molecules had a high likelihood of being developed into a drug.
So what makes members of the public give up their time, or computer time, for free? If Galaxy Zoo users are anything to go by then the something visually fun that peaks people’s curiosity and gives them a sense of achievement is a winner. Word of mouth was a key element of the site’s success as visitors emailed the address around the world: ‘I heard about this site in an email. Being an avid birdwatcher with a strong interest in physics and astronomy, this sounded like it would be right up my alley,’ said Nat Taylor Winston from Nashville, USA ‘I found I couldn't stop once I started.’ Derek Barnett from Florida discovered that it even appealed to his five-year-old son: ‘he saw the first couple images, and asked me what I was doing. I explained to him the very basics, and he asked if he could do some with me. So, up into my lap he jumped and we sat here for an hour looking at things that few people, if anyone, had ever seen. When he'd finally had enough for one night he looked at me and asked ‘Daddy, can we play the galaxy game again tomorrow?’ I told him, ‘of course, but it's not a game, it's science.’ After a couple of stunned seconds of silence, he said, ‘we're doing SCIENCE?’ with the sort of excitement that most people lose after they grow up.' It seems that wonder and enthusiasm, plus a worthy goal, times lots of people can be a very powerful formula for doing ambitious science.
This article was previously published in the December 2007 edition of Blueprint magazine.