As amazing as computers are, there are some things they can’t do as well as human minds. Visual processing and pattern recognition happen so quickly and on such an unconscious level for us that it’s practically a superpower, and it can take years to teach a computer how to even begin narrowing down false-positive matches and the like. Our scientific computer-driven tools are burying us in data that could take generations to sift through for useful discoveries. With all that in mind, I love seeing how today’s scientists are teaming up with game designers to crowd-source research to those of us with free time to give.
I’ve participated in distributed computing projects like SETI@home and BOINC off and on for years, donating processing power from my home computer to crunch data-sets for all kinds of projects and research. As satisfying as that is, it is a very impersonal kind of donation. All you need to do is install some software, choose the projects and let it run. I know my donations were valuable, but I didn’t feel very involved. The newer generation of ‘Citizen Science’ projects are putting the data into volunteer’s hands in a more direct and exciting way.
Click below to read my reviews of three Citizen Science sites I enjoy!
When I first heard of this site, I thought it was aimed at children, but I found the games are more interesting than I expected. They have a community forum and atlas of Mars, a cute program to send your name to be on the next Mars rover, a video library about the Mars missions and two games in the Citizen Science Map Room. One lets you count Martian craters; the other lets you line up historical scans over top of newer, more detailed images of Mars’ surface. I loved seeing how the landscape has changed in the years between the two picture sets, and I found it to be satisfying work. You can sign in as a guest if you don’t feel like making an account for your first visit.
The Stardust mission carried out by NASA exposed tiles of a special substance called aerogel to open space, capturing material from the comet Wild 2 in January of 2004. Since the capsule’s return to Earth, a great deal of work and study has been done on the cometary material trapped in the aerogel. This was the very first mission to return solid extraterrestrial material to Earth from beyond the Moon. A secondary goal of the mission is to find stardust, tiny rare interstellar particles, trapped in the aerogel. In the hopes of finding them, the aerogel slabs are being painstakingly sliced and scanned in 3-D. With the Stardust@Home project you receive free training in searching these 3-D scans for signs of the tiny tracks left in the aerogel that may indicate where these particles are hidden. If you happen to be the first volunteer to identify a track that leads to a particle, you will win the right to officially name the particle. The actual work is not your typical game; the aerogel scans are very pale and indistinct; but it can be a fun mystery, looking for the tiny traces of something we have never captured before. There are secret test scans shown during your work, which have either known tracks or none at all. Your scoring of these test scans provides you with an ongoing score to compare your accuracy with other participants.
I haven’t played this game much yet, since it was only released earlier this week. Unlike the previous astronomy projects, this one is about DNA. It is more game-like than the others, and the player doesn’t get much detail about the data they are working with. DNA from different species are compared by rearranging groups of blocks to match up the colors as closely as possible while eliminating dangerous gaps between blocks of code. The game is timed and you are scored against computer players and other volunteers. Scientists will use the aggregated game data to work with the DNA scans they are based from to learn more about how species are interrelated and about how diseases arise from genetic change. There is even a mode where you can choose data sets based off particular diseases like cancer or systems like the heart and circulatory system if you want to focus your donation of game time towards a specific goal.
These games may not have the same appeal as something you find on Facebook or Kongregate, but they are an interesting diversion and it really is fun to contribute to a greater cause. The projects and research I’ve been reading about are fascinating. We are learning more about our world and the natural laws every day. I like being a part of it, even if it’s only in a small way. The next time you’re looking for a little something to fill your free time, check out one of these games. You don’t need to wait until you are dead to donate your brain to science!