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Feature - Scientists, meet the citizens

Opinion - Scientists, meet the citizens


Screenshot from the Foldit online game for protein folding. Image courtesy Foldit

François Grey is the coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Center.

In a week's time, an unusual meeting of minds will occur in London.

Billed as a Citizen Cyberscience Summit, it will bring together scientists from a range of distributed, volunteer computing and volunteer thinking projects, to mingle with some of the volunteers who participate in these online projects.

The upshot of the event, hosted by King's College London on 2-3 September, should be a stimulating dialogue about how to make citizen cyberscience even more compelling for the public and even more useful to science.

The timing of the event could not be better. August saw a bumper crop of major scientific results from online science projects involving public participation. An article in Nature described progress made in protein folding using an online multiplayer game called Foldit. The game allows participants to pull, twist and shake a 3D rendering of a given protein in a variety of ways, just using a mouse and a simple web interface.

Players score according to how energetically stable the resulting protein structure is. Fascinatingly, the scientists discovered that the players spontaneously team up sometimes to try to find new strategies for folding the proteins. This exploration of strategy space, not just the molecular conformation space, puts the human solvers streets ahead of standard computer algorithms, which just plod along with same old strategy.

The Einstein@home screensaver. The Einstein@home project is analysing both gravitational wave detector data and radio astronomy data. Image courtesy Einstein@home

Wave of the future?

This sort of volunteer thinking may well be a wave of the future, but there is still lots of mileage in volunteer computing, which invites participants to simply run scientific software in the background on their PCs or laptop. There are already dozens of such projects online, and one of these, Einstein@home, made waves two weeks ago with a publication in the journal Science which described the first pulsars to be discovered through public participation.

Over 250,000 volunteers contributed to this research, providing supercomputing-level processing power of 0,25 Petaflops. Over 100 pulsar candidates were discovered, including a highly unusual specimen which is probably the fastest spinning pulsar of its kind, rotating on its axis 41 times a second.

Speakers from research groups behind both Einstein@home and FoldIt are scheduled to speak at the London Summit. And they are also going to listen to a number of the volunteers, and learn about their perspective on participating in such projects.

One celebrated volunteer who will be there, Hanny van Arkel, discovered a mysterious astronomical object in 2007. Since she is Dutch, she referred to it as a "Voorwerp" - Dutch for "object" - when drawing other participants' attention to it. The name stuck, and as a result, Ms van Arken - -who is a school teacher and also plays guitar in a band - is forever immortalized in the night sky as Hanny's Voorwerp.

The Summit will feature several such stories of discovery by amateurs, providing a reminder that thanks to the internet, citizens are playing an increasingly direct role in science.

-François Grey for iSGTW

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