The planetarium is exploring outer space—and this time, you’re in the driver’s seat looking for aliens.
By Madeline Nusser|
The Adler Planetarium isn’t just a place to see a plaster model of the solar system and zone out at a 3-D star show.
In late February, the Adler made waves announcing the launch of SETILive, a new website that aims to spot intelligent life on other planets. Forget the image of a lone astronomer peering through the eye of a telescope and coming face-to-face with an alien. SETILive is part of a group of websites that function by employing volunteers—anyone, really—willing to sit by their computers and sift through a deluge of data collected by telescopes. These volunteers have been dubbed citizen scientists. And if armchair alien-spotting sounds like a tall order, consider this: Citizen science has led to the discovery of a handful of exoplanets and even a new type of galaxy called a Green Pea.
“As professional astronomers get better at collecting information about the universe, we need the help of ordinary people—hundreds of thousands of them—to sort through the data we’ve got,” says Chris Lintott, a British astrophysicist who oversees the Adler Planetarium’s Citizen Science department (while still maintaining an appointment at Oxford and a guest gig for BBC television show Sky at Night). SETILive is one of nearly a dozen citizen science websites run by Zooniverse, a collection of projects developed and maintained by Citizen Science Alliance, a group of seven partners—including Adler and Oxford—and a bevy of academic-institution collaborators.
Zooniverse, which formed in 2009, spun out of a project launched in 2007 when Lintott, then a post-doctorate researcher at Oxford, founded one of the first citizen-scientist astronomy websites. (The Adler hired Lintott in 2010.) Called Galaxy Zoo, the site features images of galaxies and asks the viewer a series of simple questions: Is the galaxy smooth or rounded? Any sign of a spiral arm? How many arms are there? It’s extremely easy to use, and it operates on the theory that in some cases humans more effectively identify patterns than computers.
In Galaxy Zoo’s first year alone, more than a hundred thousand citizen scientists answered the call by logging on and classifying millions of galaxies.
Because of the results (regular people are surprisingly good at simple classification), astronomers have received big payoffs—publishing papers on Green Pea galaxies and other discoveries. But what’s the reward for the citizen scientist? “When we ask them why they spend their spare time doing work for scientists they’ve never met, there’s a really strong sense that people want to make a difference by doing something simple,” says Lintott, who maintains these volunteers don’t see themselves as unpaid skilled workers, like the way amateur astronomers might.
In the last nine months, the Adler has beefed up the Citizen Science department to a ten-member team, equal to the size of the entire astronomy staff. Adler president Paul Knappenberger Jr. believes the institution is perfectly positioned to lead the way in citizen science initiatives. “We deal with the public every day, whereas in universities research is conducted primarily by graduate students and faculty members,” Knappenberger says. “We feel very comfortable engaging the public in research, and that’s what led to our getting into this area.”
Lintott agrees. “Adler’s always had research astronomers, but it also has expertise in talking to and educating the public. And finding those two sets of people in the same place is really rare. There are only a couple places in the world that combine those skills.”
Composed of mostly developers, the Adler staff creates Web-based projects, some of which have nothing to do with astronomy. The process begins with public calls for ideas. “These projects aren’t education-based. We’re judging for potential research output and the impact of that research—and, actually, is there enough data,” outlines Arfon Smith, Adler’s technical director of Citizen Science. In-progress Zooniverse projects include Bat Detective. It asks website viewers to decipher ultrasonic recorded bat noises taken from around Europe in order to track species and ensure biodiversity.
The feather in Zooniverse’s cap might be SETILive, the most technologically advanced site yet. SETILive shows viewers images created from real-time data picked up by radio telescopes in California. If multiple website viewers see something out of the ordinary—a broken or weak radio signal, possibly aliens attempting to make contact—the telescope goes back to collect more data in that spot. “No one’s ever done this before,” Lintott says. “We’ve literally got no idea what we might find.”
Knappenberger hopes sites like SETILive get people thinking about visiting the Adler. In only a month, the site had attracted 50,000 people, averaging eight classifications a minute.
“If there is a signal out there, we’re confident that someone sitting in front of their computer or visiting the Adler might well find it,” Lintott says. “At worse, what we get is a better understanding of what isn’t out there. It’s not as exciting, but it’s still scientifically valid.”