Chris Lintott: Harnessing Online Help for Science
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Chris Lintott believes the next game-changing scientific discovery could come from you.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Chris Lintott was observing the night sky with his telescope when he came across a cluster of stars he had never seen before. His 12-year-old heart skipped a beat. He rushed to check the atlas. To his delight, the stars weren’t on it. So he took a pen and wrote “Lintott 1” on the empty spot.
Flash-forward 20 years. Lintott is sitting in his paper-filled office at Oxford University, smiling with childlike excitement as he recalls that day.
“The joy only lasted a few hours. The morning after I went to the library and discovered the cluster was already called NGC1981,” he says. “But that feeling of discovery stayed with me.”
The 33-year old is now a world-renowned astrophysicist, presenter of the BBC series The Sky at Night and founder of Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing platform that enables millions to experience the same rush he felt as a child. And, thanks to a grant from Google Giving, he’s planning to expand the site, enabling virtually anyone to launch scientific projects into cyberspace and reel in virtual volunteers to vet the data.
With what’s coming down the pipe, professional science will drown without help.
— Chris Lintott
Zooniverse isn’t the only site outsourcing scientific research. MIT uses Eye Wire to map neurons. NASA’s SETI project crowdsources the search for extraterrestrial life and Fold.It puzzles seek to unravel protein folding. But Zooniverse is the biggest, with more than a million volunteers worldwide looking at everything from zebras to World War II diaries. And, despite skepticism about amateur scientists, the site’s research has led to scientific discoveries, including a planet with four suns.
For Lintott, crowdsourcing serves two purposes. The first is to help scientists cope quickly with the data deluge produced by increasingly sophisticated technology. “With what’s coming down the pipe,” he says, “professional science will drown without help.”
The second is pedagogical. Lintott thinks Zooniverse can get more people interested in science and wanting to contribute. “We need to break the myth that science is only made by men in white coats with crazy Einstein hair,” he says.
Pedagogy and science are in his blood. Growing up in a little town in the south of England, Lintott spent hours on his school’s telescope studying the stars, as well as answering questions of fellow astronomy buffs. “People would call and ask: ’What’s that red thing I’m seeing? Can I come over for the eclipse?’ I liked that sense of responsibility,” he says.
In 2000, while he was an undergrad at Cambridge University, the BBC invited him to be a guest on its astronomy series The Sky at Night. He was a natural, appearing regularly until he became a presenter in 2012.
“Astronomy is a great gateway drug into science,” he says “I don’t really care if people know exactly what a comet is; I just want them to think more scientifically,” he says.
Citizen scientists are finding things we never asked them to look for.
— Chris Lintott
Off-screen, Lintott kept researching but, after finishing his Ph.D. in star formation, he found himself at an impasse. He wanted to expand beyond the Milky Way, but that required classifying a million galaxies first. “I tried using computer programs, but humans are just much better at pattern recognition,” he explains.
And then things got out of hand.
“We thought we could find 50 people to help us classify them over five years,” says Lintott. Instead, the site saw 70,000 classifications each hour in the first day, and the million galaxies were categorized by the end of day two.
The data proved useful, so it wasn’t long before other scientists started calling to ask if they could use the same method. A new, broader site, Zooniverse, was launched in 2009, with funds from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
“So far, Zooniverse has produced about 350 years’ worth of human effort,” says Lintott.
“Citizen scientists are finding things we never asked them to look for,” explains Lintott. “My favorite is a very strange mass of gas, called Hanny’s Voorwerp. It was one in a million when it was first discovered. But now we have 40 more of them because everybody wanted to find one.”
This fast-growing interest, however, risks overwhelming the capabilities of the platform, thus the 2015 expansion of the site.
But is the research truly quality stuff? A study by the U.S. National Park Service highlighted concerns that volunteer-generated data is more likely to contain bias or mistakes, especially if the tasks are complex.
But Lintott says crowd sourced results are reliable, as proven by the fact that they are being used and published in peer-reviewed papers.
The practice has also raised eyebrows among scientists.
“As a professional researcher you take pride in the work that you do. And the idea that anybody off the street could come and do something better sounds threatening but also implausible,” says Steven Bamford, a researcher at the University of Nottingham and science director of the Citizen Science Alliance.
But Lintott says that, if anything, citizen scientists are too serious.
We might never see a Zooniverse user on the cover of Science, but Lintott’s combination of logic and optimism is already accelerating discovery.