Thursday, May 26, 2011

Watch out for Exploding Stars!

Hello again my citizen science friends! We haven't talked about our colleagues at the Zooniverse for a few weeks, so let's check back in and catch up on some more of their intriguing projects.

This week we're looking at the Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt for Supernovae project.  Developed in partnership with the Palomar Transient Factory, this project asks users to look for changes in the brightness of stars over time. Some of the largest brightening possible comes when a star explodes into a supernova and this project is dedicated to identifying those events.  Future projects may look at other brightenings such as those caused by alien planets crossing in front of the star or internal changes in the star's core.  For now it's just supernovae but all are interesting projects we look forward to in the future.

But back to the project at hand. In the supernova hunt computers are used to identify changes in brightness in a given area, laying a new image on top of an old one and "subtracting" the old one so only the new brightness can be seen. This is a sure sign of a important event, but computers often make mistakes and they can't accurately analyze what the image shows. That's where we come in. Participants are asked to confirm that a brightening has indeed taken place and provide some basic information about it so astronomers can analyze it further. Not only does this narrow down the candidates for further study but it also provides a good count of the brightenings that occur, either because of supernovae or from other astronomical events.

But hey!  There's even more.  Because not only is this project valuable from a scientific standpoint and interesting from an exploding star standpoint, it's also one of the easiest projects to learn and a great way to get started as a citizen scientist.  Just look at a picture and answer a few basic questions (Is it circular?  Is it symmetrical?, etc.).  That's all there is to it.  And since the computer has already identified the promising candidates you are looking at, odds are high that some interesting space-based event is happening in every picture you review.  No searching through dead-ends here!

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt for Supernovae web page and click "Get Started" to sign in with your existing Zooniverse profile. If you have not previously registered for another of their projects all it takes is your name, e-mail address, and a password to sign up.
  2. Click on Galaxy Zoo Supernovae: How to Take Part for a tutorial on analyzing supernova images.  After learning what to do you'll be presented with before and after test shots of the same spot in space and asked to compare the images.  After answering each question roll your mouse over the final image for the correct answer.  Keep answering the examples until you become an expert.
  3. Click on Galaxy Zoo Supernovae: Hunt for Supernovae to see new images and record your answers.  Don't worry about being perfect on each image...many users from across the world are also reviewing each one so a consensus answer of everyone's expertise can be used.
That's it!    The project continues adding new images as more telescope images are processed, and admittedly some days there are no new images for analysis.  But the number keeps increasing and will increase even more once additional objects (such as alien planets and other causes of brightness change) are added to the mix.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up and start having fun.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot...Two Remarkable Creatures

OpenScientist's Book-of-the-Month selection for May tells of two amateur scientists whose work helped reshape our entire understanding of life on Earth.  In this case it's the story of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two Victorian women whose fossil collecting in Southern England proved the existince of pre-historic life.  Both were instrumental in setting the stage for modern evolutionary theories and re-evaluating the role of religion in science.

"Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier takes us into the 19th century world of a middle-aged spinster (Elizabeth Philpot) who moves to the seashore community of Lyme Regis and fills her days wandering the beach.  On these walks she begins to find the "curiosities" we call fossils, but which for her were hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.  As her character tells us on pages 18-19:
We had not long been installed in Morley cottage before I grew certain that fossils were to be my passion. For I had to find a passion: I was twenty-five years old, unlikely ever to marry, and in need of a hobby to fill my days. It is so tedious being a lady sometimes...For myself, it took only the early discovery of a golden ammonites, glittering on the beach between Lyme and Charmouth, for me to succumb to the seductive thrill of finding unexpected treasure. I began frequenting the beaches more and more, though at the time few women took an interest in fossils. It was seen as an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious. I didn't mind. There was no one I wanted to impress with my femininity. 
It is during these walks she meets young Mary Anning, daughter of a poor family who searches for "curies" her family can sell to pay off their mounting debts.  When her father passes away it is her Mother's sewing and Mary's fossil-hunting that pay the bills.  Mary is a special girl, who after being struck by lightning as a baby always finds a way to survive.  She also has a keen eye for fossils rivaling even the best-trained male scientists of the day.  She was so talented that by age 12 she had discovered the first complete skeleton of what we now know as an Icthyosaurus.  To Mary it started out as just a wierd-looking crocodile that she could sell to keep food on the table.  But soon collecting fossils turned into a lifelong passsion as shown in this exchange between Mary and her mother on page 293:
Mam sighed and straightened her cap as she prepared to go back out to customers at the table. 'All a mother wants is for her children to settle into their lives. I seen you worried about recognition for your work these many years. But you'd be better off worrying about the pay. That's what really matters, isn't it? Curies is business.'

Though I knew she meant it kindly, her words cut. Yes, I needed to be paid for what I did. But fossils were more than money to me now--they had become a kind of life, a whole stone world that I were a part of. Sometimes I even thought about my own body after my death, and it turning to stone thousands of years later. What would someone make of me if they dug me up?

But Mam were right: I had become part not just of the hunting and finding, but of the buying and selling too, and it was no longer so clear what I did. 
Although they hunted fossils for different reasons, Mary and Elizabeth became quick friends and spent countless hours together toiling along the beach.  Which is where we find them on pages 96-97:
Hunters spend hour after hour, day after day out in all weather, our faces sunburnt, our hair tangled by the wind, our eyes in a permanent squint, our nails tagged and our fingertips torn, our hands chapped. Our boots are trimmed with mud and stained with seawater. Our clothes are filthy by the end of the day. Often we find nothing, but we are patent and hardworking and not out off by coming back empty-handed. We may have our special interest -- an intact brittle star, a belemnite with it's sac attached, a fossil fish with every scale in place --but we pick up other things too and are open to what the cliffs and beach offer us. [Some], like Mary, sell what they find. Others, like me, keep our finds. We label the specimens, recording where and when we found them, and we draw cocludions. The men write up their theories and publish them to journals, which I may not contribute myself.
As their discoveries pile up the surrounding world gradually begins to take notice.  Strange men come into town for Mary's help finding fossils for their own collections.  This inevitably leads to town gossip and even jealousies between the two as Mary grows into a young women and looks increasingly, if not successfully, for love.  The relationship between the women pulls further apart as Mary's romantic life struggles and the men who visit take the fossils they want and leave.  Although the women eventually fade away from each other, their loyalty stays constant as they fight to be fairly recognized for all their work.   So when false questions arise on the authenticity of Mary's finds, we get to watch on page 248 as Elizabeth travels to a meeting of the Geographic Society in London to set things right.  
... I was consumed with anger. Mary had been so generous for so long, so little gain ... while others took what she found and made their names from it as natural philosphers. William Buckland lectured on the creatures at Oxford, Charles Konig brought them into the British Museum to acclaim, Revered Conybeare and even our dear Henry De La Beche addressed the Geological Society and published papers about them. Konig had had the privilege of naming the icthyosaurus, and Conybeare the plesiosaurus. Neither would have had anything to name without Mary. I could not stand by to watch suspicions grow about her skills when the men knew she outstripped them all in her abilities. I was also making amends to Mary. I was at last asking her to forgive me my jealousy and disdain. 
This constant subtext runs throughout the book.  Women of the day are not expected to be intellectuals or have anything remarkable to say in scientific circles.  And our two characters don't necessarily expect acclaim.  They just look for a recognition of their talents and have their ideas taken seriously. But we are all victims of our times, and even some of the more well-meaning gentleman in the book still need a push before doing the right thing.  And so we leave with an auction held by Colonel Birch, a man who acquired an immense collection of fossils almost entirely with Mary Anning's skill yet did not sense the need to repay or recognize her for the favor.  It is not until the Anning's are about to lose their home and Elizabeth informs him of their family's plight that he auction off the entire collection with the proceeds fully benefitting the Anning family.  He concludes the auction with the following words (on page 203).
'You have kindly responded in a most generous fashion.'  Colonel Birch kept his eyes on my face, as if to calm me.  'What I did not tell you before, ladies and gentlemen, is that it was the daughter of this family--Mary Anning--who discovered the majority of the specimens that make up my collection, including the fine Icthyosaurus just sold.  She is' --he paused-- 'possibly the most remarkable young woman I have had the privilege to meet in the fossil world.  She has helped me, and she may well help you in future.  When you admire the specimens you have bought today, remember it was she who found them.  Thank you.'
And so we wrap up the fictionalized tale of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot.  But there is still so much more to learn about these two fascinating women.  So next month we will return with a non-fiction account of their story, and hope to continue fleshing out the truth of these women and their impact on not just science, but the citizen science movement as well.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Travel to Mongolia and Find the Khan's Tomb

A few weeks ago the National Geographic project was highlighted in some newspaper articles.  But they only touched the surface and didn't describe how to get that's where OpenScientist comes in!  We'll explain what it's all about and show you how to join up with the expedition crew.

Genghis Khan and three of his sons, as depicted on a fifteenth century illustration.

Over 800 years ago Genghis Khan united the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and set off in conquest to found the Mongol Empire.  He conquered and ruled an empire larger than any other in history, but upon his death he faded from history and left no trace of his burial.  His tomb has been lost with no expeditions successful to date in finding it.

The "Valley of the Khans" project is now the latest expedition to search for his tomb using satellite imagery taken of the entire country.  Other expeditions have tried this but the sheer amount of imagery and inability to identify promising sites have led to failure.  But this project is different.  The team is asking citizen scientists like us to analyze the data for them, betting that the human eye can identify interesting sites much more quickly and efficiently than computers can.

But that's not the best part.  The field team is often actively searching in Mongolia as users analyze the images...allowing a real-time investigation everyone can be involved in.  So we can just follow them on their expedition blog.  Of course the field team is back in the States as I write this but will be returning in the future.

The site also provides a great tutorial for new users just learning the system.  Users are shown a series of images and asked to tag all the major items they see (such as rivers, ancient structures, etc.)  The early ones have already been well analyzed by the research team and will help show you things you may have missed.  In some, a khirigsur can be seen (a bronze age rock formation used to indicate ancient tombs), and in others a well-trained eye can even spot the expedition team traveling the countryside!  As you get more proficient, the expert level increases and you continue tagging images, but are then shown results from other users so you can compare answers and re-evaluate any potential sites you may have missed.

So what are you waiting for?

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Field Expedition: Mongolia web page and watch the video tutorial describing the project and how volunteers can help.
  • Click on the Register tab and provide some brief name/password information to sign up.
  • Once registered you will automatically be taken to the image analysis screens.  Just provide up to five markers (road, river, modern structure, ancient structure, or other) and compare how your results measure up to everyone else's.  Also, here are some quick tips...
    • Be sure to scroll through all parts of the image.  Often things are hiding outside your browser's viewscreen.  
    • Take your time analyzing each picture.  The site waits a while before offering new images so patience is rewarded with a new image instead of repeating the previous one.
That's all there is to it.  The more you practice and compare your answers the better you will get.  Soon you can help find 3,000 year old burial mounds like the team did in this field posting, or better yet, find the Khan's tomb itself!