Citizen of the universe

If the cosmos is a lonely place, the quest to find out what’s in it certainly isn’t. Zooniverse co-founder Chris Lintott talks about crowdsourced science

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“I love sitting here sending out emails to people saying you’ve discovered a planet – that’s just very cool,” enthuses Chris Lintott when asked why nearly two million people have been drawn to web-based citizen science project Zooniverse. “People want to make a discovery.”

“I had one of those everyday problems – I had too many galaxies to look at.”

Lintott, academic, astrophysicist and co-founder of Zooniverse, describes himself as an “astronomer who’s interested in trying to see how the galaxies around us formed and what processes shaped them”. In the process he became aware that the amount of data available to scientists was growing more energetically than a supernova, and Zooniverse was the response.

Zooniverse has since become the largest platform for “people-powered” research, allowing anyone to contribute to science by studying images of anything from faraway galaxies to giraffes and then answering simple questions about what they can see.

“I had one of those sorts of everyday problems – I had too many galaxies to look at,” jokes an infectiously enthusiastic Lintott when asked about Zooniverse’s origins. Modern telescopes can collect thousands of images. “We did the obvious thing – we got a student called Kevin to start looking at the images.” But even when Lintott  “tried buying him a beer”, it was clear this wasn’t going to work. “So without really thinking about it we created this website called Galaxy Zoo to ask the public to help.”

Galaxy Zoo, born in 2005, grew into Zooniverse, a collaboration between the Adler Planetarium, Oxford University and the Citizen Science Alliance. Since then more than 32,000 volunteers have classified more than 443 million pieces of data.

When I ask him what his favourite project has been he splutters that “this is like trying to pick my favourite child!” Eventually, he chooses Planet Hunter, which allowed volunteers to sift through data from Nasa’s Kepler space telescope. In 2013 they found a planet around dwarf star KIC 11442793, 2,500 light years from Earth.

“These projects are enormous fun,” says Lintott, who also presents BBC’s Sky at Night. “When I was growing up no one had found a planet around a star other than the sun. Now you can do this with a web browser.”

Currently, amateur astronomers at Zooniverse might want to help filter out muons on images generated by the VERITAS telescopes. Muons, particles like electrons but heavier, unhelpfully masquerade as gamma rays, which are the real source of interest for the researchers, but they give themselves away with their tell-tale ring-shaped image.

But you don’t need a telescope, points out Lintott – just an internet connection. Back on earth, volunteers are wanted to watch more than 7,000 hours of footage of chimp behaviour, transcribe documents written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and analyse the retinal images of people with diabetes for signs of damage.

Lots of unexpected discoveries have come from the citizen science project, he says, some detailed in his semi-autobiographical new book. And in some ways citizen scientists add something new to the analytical mix because they’re not afraid to look at an image and say “this one’s weird”.

Are they not, though, about to be out-evolved by AI? Computer scientists tell Lintott their machines can analyse images more effectively than humans. “But we’ve discovered again and again that yes, we need to use machines but we need machines plus humans.” And, he adds: “I can’t wait to get a machine to sort through my emails for me in the morning.”

The human factor is important in other ways too, demonstrating that people ganging up on the internet can have positive intent and not just be trolling. “Heartwarmingly there’s a crowd of people who like the idea that they’re helping. We think about the crowd online and it’s immediately negative.”

Zooniverse also helps people feel part of something bigger. “The universe is kind of impressive. It’s just nice to feel a part of it.”

The Crowd and the Cosmos: Adventures in the Zooniverse is published on 24 Oct by Oxford University Press (£20 hardback and ebook)

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