For dyed-in-the-wool academics it can sometimes be hard to understand what it feels to be a science amateur. So last spring I decided to become a member of Galaxy Zoo, i.e., one among many thousands of enthusiastic astronomy amateurs who spend hours in front of their computer screens, classifying about 900.000 images, provided by a project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, of far-away galaxies.
The real astronomers (RA) have assured us that as a group we, the citizen scientists, are making some serious contributions; six scientific papers have been completed (I’m NOT a co-author :-); in addition, one of us, a school teacher in the Netherlands, once discovered a curious cosmological object which the RAs marvelled over for weeks.
Even though the Galaxy Zoo community is constantly appreciated and nursed by the professional team, classification work becomes a bit tedious after a while, because, even though decision making can be quite difficult sometimes, we only have four pigeon-holes to place the galaxy images in, viz., left spiral, right spiral, elliptic and merger.
So now Galaxy Zoo is moving into a new phase. Having proved that the amateurs do indeed match the professionals when it comes to classification skills, the RAs are now giving us a new task: to sort through the 250,000 brightest galaxies from the Galaxy Zoo sample. Instead of spending 1-20 seconds on each image, we will now be able to spend more quality time with each galaxy: “the chances of seeing something spectacular have never been greater”, the RAs say.
One thing is galaxies. The real accomplishment of Galaxy Zoo, I think, is the social technology employed. Galaxy Zoo is the astronomers’ counterpart to the Obama presidential campaign. Thousands of online individuals are networked into a great, enthusiastic, web-based social movement — for electing Obama, classifying galaxies, modelling protein folding, or whatever.
Which makes me think — would it be possible to do something similar with respect to the preservation and curation of the medical heritage? And what would such a social technology platform look like? A wiki for physical objects?