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A Taste of Research: Citizen Science

2 min read

Here we have possible enrichment activities for MAT pupils:

Humans are good at finding patterns in things which aren't there. That is the reason why this morning when I was cycling to work, I looked up and saw a dinosaur in the clouds above. Either that, or the Beecham's  I'm taking for my cold is stronger than I thought. This phenomenon is known as apophenia - the ability of humans to see patterns in seemingly random data. Programming a computer to perform the same task is difficult. For example, if you show a five year old a chair, they will know it's a chair. Show the same five year old the same chair but with no back and it is still recognised as a device for sitting. Repeat the experiment again with a computer in the place of the five year old. Objectively, there is no difference between a backless chair and a table, it is this distinction which makes the job of optical recognition difficult for the computer. 

The study of galaxy structure, or morphology, is one such appearance of this recognition problem. There are many different morphologies of galaxy, from ellipticals to spirals to lenticulars and irregulars, a vast array of shapes to be classified in the deepest of Hubble deep-field-surveys. Humans are significantly more adept at recognising patterns than some of the most powerful computers - unfortunately, a human's time is more expensive than CPU time. That being said, there is an opportunity for people with a taste for research to get involved in the large-scale project of classifying millions of galaxies. The GalaxyZOO project enables the general public to get involved in the classification of galaxies and to contribute to the every growing knowledge base. It gives members of the public an idea as to what it's like to be a research scientist (at least in astronomy!).

There are other citizen science projects run out of Zooniverse and perhaps you could direct your students to one of these. At the very least it is something for the UCAS statement, at the most it will cultivate an interest in doing real science outside the classroom.