Citizen science - a cure for stupidity.

Do you, dear reader, ever find yourself bawling at the television or even hurling the remote across the room? Perhaps bringing a fist down in rage on your computer keyboard or throwing your newspaper or magazine aside in complete disgust?

Do watercooler discussions at your workplace, or even random overheard conversations on public transport, make you frequently wish for some bloodless and convenient method of resigning your membership of the entire human race?

Well, I have an answer. Not necessarily the answer. But a way of standing up for your own values at times when it seems that the people determined to foist whatever nonsense on the rest of us that it suits them to believe (despite the direction of any actual evidence) are going to overwhelm us all and cause us to suffocate under a gigantic morass of ignorance and stupidity. Bringing about the eventual death of the entire human race in a boiling-hot, waterless hell-hole of our own devising.

Aaand breathe….

The answer, mon brave, is citizen science.

This term covers a number of research projects being carried out by scientists in universities and research institutions around the world. Generally they rely upon being able to construct very complex computer models - the kind of models that use so much computing time and power that no single research team has ever been able to undertake them before.

But now they can be done - thanks to the miracle of distributed computing. Basically, by downloading some (entirely legitimate) software onto your PC and allowing it to make use of your computer’s spare processing power, you can help produce climate models, contribute to the search for sustainable water, hunt through radio signals for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence, tackle malaria or help map complex proteins. Find out about some available projects here.

(Of course, this has only been made possible by the invention of personal/general computing and the internet. But since the tsunami of idiocy referred to above has also received such a boost from these phenomena, that seems entirely fair enough to me.)

Here are three projects that I contribute computer time to that are very satisfying to be involved with:

  • - a distributed computing project involving the Met Office and Oxford University that aims to produce predictions of the Earth’s climate up to 2100 and to test the accuracy of climate models.
  • SETI@home - a must for any admirer of the astronomer Carl Sagan, this project based at the University of California, Berkeley is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers to analyse radio telescope data in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
  • Computing for Sustainable Water - this project from IBM’s World Community Grid is studying the effects of human activity on a large watershed to gain deeper insights into what actions can lead to restoration, health and sustainability of this important water resource.

And, if you don’t want to use your computer for a project like this (maybe because it doesn’t really have the processing power to spare, for example) then there are plenty of citizen science projects that can still benefit from your assistance.

One example would be the twice-yearly Nature’s Calendar project from the Woodland Trust which asks observers to note a series of indicators that spring and autumn have arrived and send in their data to be collated centrally. This has allowed important insights into the effects of climate change on British wildlife, and therefore gives naturalists and scientists a fighting chance of mitigating them.

Another interesting recent project was the Dark Skies initiative from the Council for the Protection of Rural England. During its Star Count 2012 it asked observers around the UK to count the number of stars in the constellation of Orion during a given week - then mapped the results to show the effects of light pollution on our view of the night sky.

Citizen science. Neutralising the stupid one small action at a time.