Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Finding Planets...Hidden among all the Data

This is the newest Zooniverse project and has probably the most tantalizing goals...searching for planets amongst data from the Kepler space telescope.  Citizen scientists accomplish this by looking for the dimming of starlight that occurs when a planet transits, passing in front of a star and blocking the light.  Users are also asked to classify how variable the star's light is, and whether it pulsates, has sharp gaps in output, or has any other odd features worthy of note.  The site even prompts users on each star whether any of those features that should be discussed with the science team.

Admittedly, getting started is easy. But there are some problems. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Travel to the PlanetHunters main page, where you are greeted by a super quick tutorial teaching the project's basics.
  2. Once complete, review what you've learned through the slightly more in-depth tutorial and video at thePlanetHunters: Getting Started page.
  3. Click on the PlanetHunters: Classify link and get started!
This is the third Zooniverse project I've reviewed in the past two weeks. And generally I've been highly impressed with their ability to create science-worthy projects that are simple to learn and fun to use, all at the same time. So I had real high hopes when first signing on for this project. It's just too bad the third time is not a charm.

In fairness they do many things right.  The immediate introductory tutorial, which only takes a minute or two, really helps get things started and let's casual web surfers see just how easy participation can be.  The follow-on video and tutorial do a great job of filling in the necessary science background and providing additional training to users.  The interface with easy prompts makes the work as simple as can be.  And they've even added "dummy" data to test users and statistically validate the work being performed, with feedback to users on how well they analyzed the "dummy data"

But the problem is that while the other Zooniverse sites incorporated astronomy images (with their own inherent beauty) and asked users to study the pictures, this project only provides scatterplots of light intensity data to analyze (like the ones shown below).  Is this real science...Yes.  Is this a scientifically rigorous way to find planets...Yes.  But it lacks a lot of the joy factor the others do.

So I continue to give the Zooniverse team credit for continuing to make telescope data usable by citizen scientists, and for continuing to innovate better ways to get people involved in the analysis.  But they are victims of their own success.  From a pure users standpoint I must recommend trying one of the other Zooniverse sites instead, such as MoonZoo or GalaxyZoo: Hubble.