When non-scientists band together to help scientists carry out their work, it’s called “citizen science.” This “crowdsourced science” is a great way for the general public to get involved in scientific research, introducing them to a level of detail beyond science writers’ interpretations and showing them how scientists really work. Volunteer science is usually not on the top of people’s minds as a hobby, but with many people cooped up at home right now with more time on their hands due to social distancing, and perhaps more scientific questions on their mind than usual, it can be a great way to feel like you’re part of something bigger. Zooniverse is a huge platform allowing you to participate in dozens of these projects, from astronomy to language to history to biology, and connect and converse with your fellow researchers while you’re at it. We spoke with Dr. Laura Trouille, VP for Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium and Co-PI of Zooniverse, and Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase, Astronomer at Adler Planetarium, about the possibilities they’ve seen in opening up their research to the wider world.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Welcome everyone. My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I am the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science. And I’m thrilled to talk to two brilliant thinkers who are bridging the worlds of science and the public as a whole, sitting with Dr. Laura Trouille and Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase, who have done tremendous work on a project called “Zooniverse,” which allows all sorts of citizens, from their own home, to be able to engage with a variety of different scientific topics and subjects. Right now we’re recording this on April 1st in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone is sitting around on their couch, a lot of people are looking for something to be able to do. People are also very engaged in questions about science and medicine. This is a wonderful way to be able to actually contribute to some of the knowledge base that needs to be expanded, but also if you’re just curious on a variety of different scientific topics, this is a wonderful way to be able to engage.
So I actually want to turn it over to Dr. Trouille here, to Laura, to share a little bit about what Zooniverse is, how it arose, what people can do, to let people know about what this is and how exciting it is. So Laura, I’m going to turn it over to you. And I know you’ve got some slides to be able to share in a few minutes, so I’m going to turn this over to you.
Laura Trouille: Thanks so much. It’s really a pleasure to join you here and with Grace. And yes, let me just start by sharing my screen. And so now let me know if you see that. And this will help give a little bit of what the background of Zooniverse. So it’s a program that’s been going for over a dozen years now. And it started with a first project, Galaxy Zoo. And so what I’m showing here is our projects page, where you can search all the different projects. And I’m just going to go to Galaxy Zoo, so folks have a sense for what the project is, specifically. Galaxy Zoo started back in 2007 and it was a research team that had a dataset of 1,000,000 galaxies. And so they said a grad student to start classifying them if that galaxy was a spiral or an elliptical. And it was just going to be a tremendously long project, more than their professional lifetimes, just to classify these images, let alone actually dive into the research of “How do galaxies change over time?” to “How are they formed?”
So thank you so much for having us today. It’s really a pleasure to join you. And so Zooniverse, in general, is the world’s largest platform for online citizen science. There are 2,000,000 people around the world who participate in over 100 different projects, from identifying planets around distant stars, to transcribing hand-written historical documents, to marking the structures of cells for cancer research, to tagging animals in images from across the Serengeti desert.
So the idea is that in research, data sets are becoming bigger and bigger and bigger, and it’s really difficult for researchers to process all that data, let alone dive into their research questions and interests. And so back in 2007, the first project, Galaxy Zoo, was a proof of concept, that if astronomers put a dataset of 1,000,000 galaxies online, could the public help them in a way that would unlock that data and be reliable and robust and then actually lead to research publications, and really, a deeper understanding of how, for that project galaxies, change over time. And in that proof of concept, Galaxy Zoo was launched, in the first hours they were getting 70,000 classifications an hour. In the first year, 150,000 people participated, and it was 5 year olds to 95 year olds. You didn’t need any expertise or background, and that’s the case for all the Zooniverse projects. There’s no special skills you need, it’s just purely having eyes on the data and a simple classification test, and then the researchers are able to to actually dig into their research questions, oftentimes alongside the citizen scientists.
Geoff Mitelman: So it sounds like even, for lack of better word – I want to say the “grunt work” – but you need to have a certain amount of data. But that contributes, it’s a tremendous value. And rather than having a couple of people doing very specialized work, they get to use their expertise, but being able to draw from a lot of different people who can spend five minutes to, you know, months, if this is what they’re excited about, they’re contributing and adding to the value of the scientific enterprise, it sounds like.
Laura Trouille: Yeah, and that’s part of the beauty of citizen science. Whether it’s, in person, going to a stream and collecting water quality data, for example, or online citizen science like the Zooniverse’s, it’s about contributing in a truly valued and meaningful way, that researchers really do need the public’s help. And we’ve identified ways the public, no matter your background or skills, can help in a truly meaningful way.
Geoff Mitelman: So what are some ways that people could be involved? I would assume that there are schools that use this, I’m assuming that there are people who, as they’re sitting on their couch, rather than binging Netflix, this is something they could be doing. What are the different ways and some of the different projects that people might be able to to work on here?
Laura Trouille: Yeah, so what I’m doing here is sharing my screen, so if you go to Zooniverse.org/Projects, we’ve highlighted four – we always highlight four at the top that could particularly use your help, or are relevant at this particular moment. And there are currently 100 active projects, and so whether it’s – you’re home, as many of us are right now, and looking for an interesting way, if you’re an adult, just to engage, whether you like nature, or history, or medicine, or space, you can filter by those. And then you just click on the project and dive in. There are also a whole slew of educational resources that we’ve made available that teachers have used in classrooms with students, and so I can share this particular link, but it’s on our Zooniverse blog.
And it’s a whole set of different lesson plans based around the different projects. And it’s catered to younger ages, or to teens and adults. And there’s all sorts of ways of hands-on activities, and then actually participating in the project itself.
And then maybe I can just show a project, so right now one of our highlighted projects is Planet Four. These are satellite images of Mars’s surface. And so you go in and you just look at an image, and then there are some straightforward questions about “Do you see any blotches in the image?” and then “What type of blotches?” And you can draw over them. And this helps the research team know, for all the different areas on the surface of Mars, how weather and climate is changing over the seasons. And part of it is for future potential human space exploration, and robot exploration, of the surface. So each project has that general setup, where it’s an image on the left and and a task of some sort on the right. So here it’s looking at images in a nature reserve and trying to get a sense for what types of animals are being shown.
Geoff Mitelman: It looks really easy to use and really interesting. And you know, I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old who need some stuff to be able to do, and it’s something that looks like it’s a very doable task, which is – and I would also think that the more robust the dataset the researchers are able to get, the better it is.
Laura Trouille: Yeah, and [in] every image, something that often comes up as a question is “What if I make a mistake?” And so there is something in all the project tutorials that talks about how every image is looked at by multiple people. In the case of these snapshot projects, it’s 25 people looking at every image. And so if 24 out of 25 say “Oh, that’s a” – (I actually don’t know what type of animal this particular one is, but that’s a thing), then the research team can be confident in that particular result. But they get just as much data from the ones where it’s a lot of “12 out of 25 say this, then another 13 out 25 say something else.” Then that gives them a sense of “Oh, that image may be blurry or the animals may be far off in the difference, where it’s hard to tell.” And so no one should be worried about making mistakes, as it’s the power of a crowd that gives a robust consensus result.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, it’s very interesting, seeing all the different perspectives. It also looks like there’s history, like I know there’s a piece – I’m seeing anti-slavery manuscripts, and I’m remembering there was also stuff from historical elements. I’d love to actually bring in Grace for a minute, because I think one of the interesting things that I happened to see was there are some pieces that are sort of historical or religious, and one thing that we talk about at Sinai and Synapses – I know you’re also involved with the Clergy Letter Project from Michael Zimmerman – there’s this false distinction that religion and science are in conflict with each other. This is actually potentially a really wonderful way for religious communities to advance science, and not just biology and physics, but if there are churches that are fighting injustice, anti-slavery manuscripts, or looking historically, there’s tremendous value that synagogues and church groups could also be involved in. It also can help tosay, “Wait a second, religious people can help advance the cause of science as well.” So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Grace Wolf-Chase: Oh, absolutely. Thank you, Geoff. I’ve been involved in science and religion dialogue for over 20 years now, and I think that this is one of the most important things for society, to build bridges between different communities and show people that science and religion do not have to be at loggerheads at all. And so you’re right, Zooniverse can be used in churches, in synagogues – it’s being used right now by at least one seminary who are using various Zooniverse projects in their Science for Seminaries program. And I think that there are a lot of reasons why religious audiences, in particular, might want to participate. So Laura would tell you that the number one motivation that people express to us why they participate is to feel like they’re making a difference in research, like they’re doing – they’re making a positive contribution.
Well, I think that there are some additional great reasons, especially for communities of faith and interfaith communities. And I’d like to share a brief story about my friend Brother Guy Consolmagno, who’s Director of the Vatican Observatory. And he loves to tell a story about his time working in Kenya when he was working with the Peace Corps, and how he taught astronomy there. And he was amazed to find that even among people who had very little, were hungry most of the time, had very few resources – he worked in a village where he’d take a telescope out, he’d give talks, he’d give beautiful, dark, clear-sky talks ,and point to things with the telescope. The entire village would come out for those.
And one of his conclusions was that yeah, people can be physically hungry, but the hunger to connect with the sky, with our origins, to how we fit in to the whole big picture, that’s as deep, and as pressing, for people all over the world. So that spiritual hunger, if you will, is equally as important as satisfying the physical hunger.
And I think that for Jewish and Christian communities, especially, for me, that reminds me of a piece of scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” That can be found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel of Matthew, and I think that what that’s saying, especially for Jews and Christians who believe that creation itself springs from the Word of God, is that this can be a tremendously powerful motivation to actually try to understand the universe more and to contribute to our base of human knowledge. I’d also like to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, if I may, very briefly, the Jewish theologian. In his book “God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism,” he writes:
“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.”
Well, I suggest that looking at some of these incredible images and participating with the researchers in some of these projects is a great way to live in that radical amazement.
Geoff Mitelman: Absolutely. And you know, you bring up an important point that a lot of communities are are dealing with right now. As I mentioned, we’re recording this on April 1st, and so the Jewish community and the Christian community and, in fact, the Muslim community, are all going to be dealing with major holidays that are not going to be observed in a way they’ve ever been observed before. There’s a lot of isolation that happens, and people are hungering for a sense of community and connection. And it sounds like what [researchers on] Zooniverse are able to do is be part of something larger than yourself, to be connected to a sense of community that you may not necessarily be with physically in this kind of way, but to be able to add your voice, to add your contribution, to a larger communal effort.
I’m curious also, are there [other] ways, as people get involved in this project, to talk offline, or any relationships that come up, or are people able to ask – you know, are they able to talk to the researchers, or build connections that are happening, through all this research that’s happening?
Grace Wolf-Chase: Laura could share her screen with you, but each project comes with a talk facility – Laura, do you want to take this part of the explanation, or you want me to continue?
Laura Trouille: Sure, yes, I can. So what I’m sharing on my screen is here is the Planet Hunters Project, which is looking for planets around distant stars. And it’s data from a satellite where you’re looking at stars and looking for dips. And so each project has this Talk Discussion Forum, and part of the commitment, when the research team puts their data online and invites the public to work alongside them, is to be very present and responsive within the discussion forum. And you can see that there’s been over 2,000 participants and tens of thousands of posts, and it’s about – sometimes, as somebody is classifying, they see something unusual – in this data set, this particular light curve has something weird in it. And so they just flag it and say “Hey, what’s going on?”
But a lot of the conversations (especially now, but it always has been the case) are just about who you are as a person, and what you’re interested in, and what you’re finding in this community, and seeing a reflection of yourself in those around you. So whether that’s in person or here in an online community, I know people are really hungry for that connection right now. And so part of what we’ve really – one of our big goals is just to make an extremely welcoming and supportive online space for people. And our moderators, so volunteers who serve as moderators within these discussion forums, and the research team members themselves, are very thoughtful about that, and being welcoming and supportive and empathetic.
Geoff Mitelman: I mean, it really sounds like it’s an incredible project here. And what’s exciting to me is the ability to be able to add to the base of science, because science has become so specialized, and translating – it’s been hard to translate complicated, esoteric scientific topics into ways that laypeople can understand. Because there’s a lot of speciality that happens. And so the New York Times headline, even the New York Times article, has to be really, really simplified. And people go “Huh, that’s interesting,” and maybe they share the interesting article on social media. This sounds like it’s a real opportunity to bring something of value. And I just I’m so excited and impressed by this work.
Laura Trouille: You know, a lot of the science, part of the magic, or part of what makes Zooniverse work, and has engaged these 2,000,000 people and hundreds of researchers, is that from the start, it’s been a marriage between the Adler Planetarium in Chicago with our expertise and all the staff we have who know deeply how to engage the public in science. And then the University of Oxford, and their expertise in data and research, and sort of their reputation within the research community. And so it’s been Adler and Oxford and then a lot with University of Minnesota as well. Alongside these, [there are] partnerships with the 100 different research teams leading 100 different research projects that are available.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, it sounds like it’s growing and growing and growing. And if people want to be involved, they just go to Zooniverse.org, correct?
Geoff Mitelman: Teriffic. Are there other last thoughts or comments that you want to make sure that everyone knows about this? Grace wants that to say something.
Grace Wolf-Chase: So Geoff, I don’t know how easy it is to share this in this interview, but I would like to give you my email address (email@example.com) in case any of your audiences are interested in helping us out with a project that Laura and I are both engaged in right now. And that’s specifically to bring communities of faith, and interfaith communities, into doing citizen science with Zooniverse in two ways. We’re interested in hearing from people who would be willing to help us prototype using Zooniverse in different venues like in churches and synagogues, at, I want to say summer camps – maybe they’re virtual this year, I don’t know – but those different types of environments. And also, if anyone, yourself included, is sitting on a large digitized data set, whether these are church records or some kind of historical records, or even whether you’re involved in an interfaith, say, environmental project and you think that you might have a project that could lend itself to Zooniverse, we can actually conduct a “zoo builder” workshop, because it’s possible to build your own Zooniverse projects.
Geoff MItelman: I think there are a lot of of houses of worship that probably have a lot of records and they don’t know what’s there, and I think what’s interesting about all the data is that the more data you can have, the more interpretations you can bring in, the more you can see connections. You don’t know what the data is ultimately going to bear out, but you need to be able to have it, and what could be interesting are the different elements that people are able to bring in.
So I want to thank both of you for your time here, and for this incredible project. I strongly encourage everyone to be involved. It sounds like it’s a very doable project, it’s something that people – some people may have a lot more time than others, depending on time right now, but I really want to encourage everyone to be involved in Zooniverse. And Laura and Grace, thank you so much for not just the time, but for your wisdom and for the energy that you brought to be able to help everybody in America and everybody in the world to be involved in creating more science, which is how we understand this universe. So thank you both so much.