Science needs you


Recently, I was excited to announce I’d received a postcard from Mars, a photograph of the Martian terrain taken by NASA’s HiRise satellite. It’s not every day you get to influence the targets of a satellite in orbit around another planet, so it was quite a thrill to see NASA take up my suggestion, and I’d like to think I’ve contributed to the body of knowledge documenting the evidence for a watery past on Mars.

I mentioned this to a friend and they said something to the effect of, “Oh, but you’d know where to look.” Implicit in that was (a) that I somehow know something unique about Mars and (b) that they don’t, or that they couldn’t come up with some interesting geological feature for investigation. Both of these assumptions are wrong. I explained that I was armed with nothing more than amateur curiosity, and that they could find interesting features if they looked, but they weren’t convinced, and that got me thinking about how sometimes we sell ourselves short, especially when it comes to understanding science.

Science needs you. 

Seriously, science needs you as much as you and I need science. NASA made the HiRise satellite available publicly through HiWish so we could assist them in the exploration of Mars. I understand that the interface may be a little intimidating at first, but take a look at the areas of interest on Mars. Sign in, create a new suggestion, switch the background to elevation, zoom in, and look at what others have suggested and photographed, and before you know it, you’ll find some small corner of the red planet that no one else has considered.

Citizen science is an exciting way to participate in science projects and gain an appreciation of what science is and how science works. And there’s lots of fun things you can do:

And there’s more at the zooniverse. Citizen science is all about supporting scientific research by providing a helping hand, helping categorize important information so scientists have hard evidence with which to construct their theories. These theories then help explain the world in which we live and help us improve our quality of life moving forward.

The breast cancer research is a particularly good example of why citizen science is important, as it is a double-blind review of drug efficacy tests. In an age of quacks and snake-oil salesmen, where everything from coffee enemas to crystals to baking soda have been proposed as “cures,” there is a need for the public to understand that only evidence-based medicine has any value. And as a citizen scientist, you can help gather that evidence.

The phrase “alternative medicine” is a misleading. Panadol is an alternative to Nurofen, Duragesic is an alternative to morphine, but these are medicines to start with, carefully screened and tested, well-understood, with known efficacy.

Baking powder is not an alternative to anything other than yeast in baking.

One site even goes so far as to claim there are “hundreds” of “cures” for cancer but that the “politics of the Cancer industry keeps many of these hidden and forbidden.” Such alarmist, conspiratorial claims mislead thousands of innocent people desperately seeking genuine help.

If there is a conspiracy, it is a conspiracy to eliminate baseless, unproven, irrational and ultimately harmful practices that exploit vulnerable people in an unethical manner.

By participating in the review of double-blind clinical results you are contributing to understanding whether a particular approach to treating cancer is effective or not.

And it’s “double-blind” because the researchers collecting the samples have ensured they’re anonymous so there’s no bias. You too have no idea which patient or which drug results you’re examining. In this way, you can be confident that there’s no bias, no subtle weighting in the outcome. In effect, you are eliminating the possibility of any conspiracy, ensuring a particular therapy is judged on its merits and its merits alone.

If crushed unicorn horns, dissolved pixie wings or whatever other exotic “alternative” concoction passes a double-blind clinical test, wonderful. If not, junk it.

Scientists are not the high priests of some new mystery religion. There’s no cordoned-off area behind the altar that is the sole domain of the most sacred, holy scientists. Science is for everyone. Participating in a citizen science project can help demystify science for you personally.

What is science other than your inner two-year old asking, “Why?

Science is a carefully measured, transparent, testable description of reality. Ever since we were children, we asked questions like, “Why is the sky blue?” At some point, some exasperated adult may have replied, “Just because.” And with those two words, thinking and reasoning were stifled. Science rekindles that interest. Science awakens within us our base sense of awe and discovery about this magnificent universe in which we live. We need to renew that childlike enthusiasm to learn and explore.

Science needs you, but not just to help, to understand.

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16 thoughts on “Science needs you

  1. Grea post. I did not know about the HiRise satellite, but as a chef, do not recommend using baking powder instead of yeast, they are two very different things and will give very different results. (LOL) I know what you mean by people’s faith in science, it is a tool, not a religion. :-)

  2. Great post! And I agree that people should get more involved in science, but the reason they don’t is mostly because they’re spoonfed with it by the media which glamorizes the genius of scientists and is filled with “grand mysteries” and “things we don’t yet understand.” This has a rather off-putting effect on people without scientific background, when it comes to their curiosity. It goes something like… “well if NASA has no clue what they’re looking at, why should I? I got a show to watch.”
    I think the general public will never be invested in science. Hobby scientists and sci-fi afficionados on the other hand always will be, regardless of how tough it is and how much they’re aware they don’t yet understand. :)

    • Yeah, and the media doesn’t help with often misleading and inflated article titles trying to lure readers in, that sensationalism undermines any serious science. And as for understanding it all, it’s one step at a time :)

    • Indded it’s frustrating sometimes (quite often) to watch journalists’ mishandling of science. But those who want to learn can learn. I see a lot of good popsci in print, on telly and on t’Internet.

  3. Science rocks! Thanks to science i can enjoy big screen TV, drive in hi tech automobiles and I am not dead from about 50 different childhood diseases! Gotta love science!

    • Planet Hunters
      Imagine you’re watching as people walk past a distant streetlight or store front. As they walk past, the light gets slightly dimmer, which marks their transit. But you’re in Mumbai India, and the electrical power is dirty and highly variable, so you’ve got to distinguish between the natural variations of the light and someone walking past.

      In this example, there’s three transits. Although the first two look similar, they don’t repeat at regular intervals so they’re probably different planets. The third is something nice and big passing by.
      Planet Hunters
      From what I understand, once these transits are identified, they then examine the spectra of light to determine the atmospheric composition of the planet. It’s a bit like noticing that the storefront light went slightly red because the person walking past was wearing a transparent, red-tinted raincoat.

      Some of the stars are highly variable and/or irregular. I like finding planets around stars that are “quiet” and roughly one sol, as that’s what someone would make of our solar system from a distance.

    • Oh, so the X axis is time… the Y axis is brightness. Also, I tend to ignore anything that’s not quite distinct, as I suspect there’s plenty of room for false positives.

    • As another example, I’d say this star has no transits… it’s just a noisy, irregular variable star. To my mind, the key is that the downward spikes which could represent a planet are roughly the same as the upward spikes which show the star increasing in intensity, so one suggests the other is normal and not a planet in transit.

    • You can ignore gaps… they’re interruptions in data that are unrelated to the star itself.

      Although the white-dots-on-black look a little naff and low-tech there’s actually a wealth of information behind them. If you look at the candidates page, they list the “hunters” that found each verified planet. Then the Kepler team dig deeper into the fine-grain information being gathered on each transit. So the citizen science aspect is the tip of the iceberg.

  4. Pingback: “Amateur” is not a dirty word, but then again neither is “expert”. | Baldscientist

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