In my pursuit of a bigger, better, faster brain, I have done some weird things. I’ve also done some smart things. But, quite often, I must admit, what I’ve done the most of is wasting time. No, I’m not talking about Angry Birds or Farmville or other, standard time wasters. But I have logged more than my share of hours on YouTube, Facebook, LiveJournal, and Tumblr. And I enjoyed every moment of my mindless fun, while still feeling enormously guilty.
This week, however, I discovered a place where I’m not only proud, but thrilled to spend my time wasting there. The place is called Zooniverse, and it’s a site where common shlubs like me can participate actively in some pretty cool science research.
A New-Fangled Barn-Raising
The idea of crowdsourcing is not a new one. In the old days, folks in a community would get together one Saturday afternoon, bring lots of food, Old Jim would play the banjo, and everybody would build Farmer Sven’s new barn. Thanks to good old-fashioned teamwork, a process that would normally take a few days (or months, depending on what contractor you hire), could get done in the space of a few hours. Habitat for Humanity is keeping this tradition alive around the world (minus the banjo, I think), providing homes for families who would otherwise never be able to afford a house of their own.
Not everybody has a Velcro tool belt at the ready, but we have all participated in a form of crowdsourcing. The office potluck is a great example—everybody brings a little of something, and the whole group eats better than if they’d dined alone.
Technology has blown the roof off of the concept of barn-building and potlucks. With Cloudservers and dynamic websites and a host of other previously unheard of tools, we can take the idea of a shared workload to a whole new level. Sites like Blogmutt.com provide a forum where businesses (for a monthly fee) can connect with bloggers (who get paid) who will gladly write content for their blogs. The business puts out a concept, the bloggers bring their best stuff, and the winner (the blog entry the business likes best) gets paid. It’s a good way for business to get content and bloggers to get experience and (possibly) a bit of cash.
Wasting Time for a Cause
There are no small number of ways in which business will be able to score and score big on this new technology. But there is another factor that can benefit for this, and that’s where Zooniverse comes in to the picture.
As I have mentioned more than a few times in the past, I am a science junkie. I love the stuff, am fascinated by it, and have spent quite a bit of my adult life lamenting the fact that I just don’t have the chops to pursue it in any meaningful way.
Zooniverse was made for people like me, chock full o’enthusiasm, but without the requisite skill to do anything more than drudge work. Happily, there’s lots of drudge work out there that needs to be done, and Zooniverse connects labs and universities with a coterie of willing drones to help them with their research.
It All Comes Back to Science Channel
Yeah, thanks television once more. I learned about Zooniverse, obliquely, through Science Channel’s Are We Alone Month. Lots of programming on aliens, interstellar research, and of course SETI. For those of you who are not total geeks, SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The non-profit SETI Institute has been around since 1984 and houses the Center for SETI Research, The Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, and the Center for Education and Public Outreach.
One of the things SETI does is catalog radio signals picked up by their Allen Telescope Array (ATA) to determine if those signals originate on Earth, on satellites, or possibly have a non-terrestrial original. Trouble is, there are a lot of radio waves, and only so many SETI scientists with so many hours in a day.
Introducing SETI Live, where volunteers (“Citizen Scientists”) can sign up, get a bit of training, and assist with cataloging signals from the Keplar Field. There is a community where volunteers can ask questions, receive guidance, and learn more about the research.
SETI Live is part of a larger organization, called (you guessed it) Zooniverse.org. SETI research is just one small part of this. At Zooniverse, you can help translate and measure ancient Greek papyrus scrolls (I suck at it), catalog whalesong snippets (I’m okay at it), and even search for solar storms or search for alien planets. The site makes a game out of it, and the absolute least you can do is learn a bit about science.
What’s In It for Me?
When I wax eloquent about this site, I get a lot of the same reactions. First reaction is, Yeah, but if you do find alien life, somebody else will get the credit for it. And to them, I respond, scientific curiosity is not about credit or fame. It’s about the desire to know and learn about the world around us. Anything I do, even in the smallest way, to further the knowledge of mankind is reward in itself.
The other response I get, even more frequently, is “You have wayyyyy too much time on your hands.” To these critics I ask the following question: What did you do last night?
Did you watch TV?
Did you work crossword or Sudoku puzzles?
Did you spend hours on Twitter or Angry Birds or FoxNews.com?
The bottom line is, when we look at our lives in a cold, clear manner, we find that we do have time. What we value determines where we spend our time, like where we spend our money. And while there is nothing wrong with television or Sudoku or Twitter (jury’s still out on Fox News), there are very worthwhile things we could be doing that are just as much fun with a better bang for our time.
That doesn’t mean I’m giving up TV or Facebook or YouTube. But from now on, I’m going to carve out just a bit of my online goof off time and give it to science. Whalesong, solar storms, alien signals? Yeah, that beats a bunch of angry birds any time, in my humble opinion.