Citizen scientists shape 'destiny of humanity'

In 2009, Jill Tarter wanted to trigger the most meaningful search for extraterrestrial intelligence to date by pulling everyone together to look at the sky. The SETI Institute scientist brought her wish to the 2009 TED Conference. The idea of citizen science gave her hope.

The more eyes and ears she could put on the sky and the signals being received by the Allen Telescope Array - a collection of small satellite dishes together that can simultaneously pick up signals for radio astronomy research - the better chance we have at making new discoveries. Tarter wanted people to analyze the signals the array sends back in real time – something machines can’t do.

“We think humans are able to do something that our machines can’t” Tarter said. “We’re hoping that in these regions of the spectrum, where there are so many signals that we use for our own communication purposes, that humans can perhaps be sensitive to signals buried underneath all of this chatter of our own that might be coming from a distant technology.”

Unlike a machine’s capabilities when sorting through the tangled data, the human eye is good at picking out patterns in “the mess,” Tarter said, and identifying that same mess elsewhere in the sky.

And the more people who actively point to one particular spot in the sky as producing the most interesting frequencies, the telescope will point in that direction. They can help SETI by accessing SETI Live, the citizen science platform, on Science Channel's site. The initiative will continue until the end of the month, with results of SETI's findings to follow after it concludes.

“The more viewers are tuning in to scan the sky, they can actively control where the telescope is pointed, so it really is the power of the masses, I think it is a very exciting initiative to get everyone involved in something that can ultimately change the destiny of humanity, and how often do you get to say that in your lifetime?” said Bernadette McDaid, executive producer at Science Channel.

In partnership with the SETI Institute, Science Channel devoted a month’s worth of programming and interactives on their website to promoting citizen science projects, which began on March 6 and concludes tonight with the world premiere of “NASA’s Unexplained Files” at 10 p.m. ET. The initiative is called “Are We Alone?” and covers the search for intelligent life outside of our planet.

“When you think about when you were a kid, science came easy because you would ask questions about the world and you would naturally experiment. Somewhere along the line, I think people lost that childhood curiosity,” said Debbie Myers, general manager for Science Channel. One of her favorite childhood memories is going out in the backyard at night with a telescope and asking her father “a gazillion questions” about the sky, the stars and the vastness of space.

“We forget to look up, and we forget to ask questions. That’s our job, to remind you and bring you back to the awe and that wonder.”

Actor Morgan Freeman, who hosted a special episode of his “Through the Wormhole” series for the initiative called “Will we survive first contact?” sees this as an opportunity for people to explore their deepest curiosity, and how the search for alien life can yield greater returns in other areas.

“I think we’re fascinated by questions that are almost unanswerable,” Freeman said. “Now that we have such extraordinary technology, we can see and extrapolate what we see in the search. We have found a huge number of planets because we have a satellite that looks deep at other stars and measures their light.”

SETI is partnering up with Zooniverse, one of the largest citizen science online platforms, to allow viewers and users access to the SETI Live citizen science platform and help Tarter with her wish. Zooniverse, started as Galaxy Zoo in 2007, is the go-between for people hoping to jump into a project like planet-hunting from the comfort of their own home. They want to take away the intimidation factor and encourage people to let loose the scientist, and nerd, within.

“I think people put scientists on a pedestal, this idea of some lofty height they could never do,” Arfon Smith of Zooniverse said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of science is really quite routine. Science is not a sequence of 'Eureka!' moments. Research is a continual ongoing process and all we’re saying is, we already look at galaxies, but we think you could do it, too."

Through previous successful citizen science projects, Zooniverse, like Dr. Tarter, realized that people are good at classifying galaxies and other anomalies by shape, as well as discovering exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system.

Whether they are transcribing data, observing images from deep space or even describing what a signal sounds like, it is complete collaboration between the specific scientific teams that submit projects and the users who follow their passion to Zooniverse. More than 600,000 people take part in the site’s projects.

The benefits are numerous, both for researchers and participants. Having a multitude of people analyzing the same data provides confidence and trust in their findings, and cuts a giant project down to a manageable and more rapid resolution.

“My education research colleagues tell me the most exciting method of learning is when you’re learning through doing,” Smith said. “It is sparking a much more natural interest in the project – ‘Here is a problem you can help us solve.’”

What Myers, McDaid, Tarter and Smith all hope is that promoting citizen science projects will change the landscape of science as a whole for the future.

“In five years’ time, we’ll look back and cite this approach as a different way of doing research,” Smith said. “We’re moving towards open research, and there is something deeply satisfying about that.”