A new wave of expert

Zooniverse first emerged with Planet Hunters in December 2010. Zooniverse is a collection of web-based citizen science projects that use the efforts of volunteers from all around the globe to help researchers deal with floods of data. Planet Hunters sifted through the vast array of data collect from NASA’s Kepler – launched in March 2009 – with an agenda to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars. The software instructed participants to view data and mark out the characteristic drops in light due to an orbiting extrasolar planets (exoplanets) crossing in front of their parent stars.


Kepler’s field of view, © NASA/JPL

I, along with nearly 300,000 volunteers worldwide, assisted in flagging up unknown planet candidates. Each new paper that was published from these results listed thousands of volunteers’ names that contributed to the discoveries. Now, from Kepler’s data, experts believe to have discovered over 2000* exoplanets.

*This number of confirmed exoplanets seems to increase on a weekly basis.

planet hunter

Example of  flagged graph, Planet Hunter 2015

There seems to be a new dawn of experts or digital apprenticeships, encouraged by such projects. It is also clear that as incredible technology is developed, the data still needs to be analysed by the human eye and interpreted for anomalies – because the freaks and happy accidents lead to important discoveries. Interns, volunteers, students and amateurs have played important roles in solving mysteries of the Universe, and need to continue to be incorporated into industries that have previously been off limits to those without expensive degrees.

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, is launching an online citizen-science tool called GlobalXplorer, that like Zooniverse, will train up volunteers to find the world’s hidden heritage – initially focusing on Peru. Her team will use DigitalGlobe, the world’s largest provider of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery. Hopefully this initiative will be used to protect the sites and be a source for understanding past civilisations. In the wrong hands it sounds like a looters paradise.

Another new technology that could lead to similar projects is LIDAR / LADAR, a light detection and ranging technology that directs hundreds of thousands of light pulses towards the ground. By measuring the distance light travels to the ground and back, forested areas can be digitally stripped away, revealing previously undetectable ground levels. Experts are using this method to discover the worlds previously unknown archeological sites.

Development of these projects – enabled by technology – means more opportunities to re-shape industries that were previously hard to penetrate. Accounts I have heard from archeology graduates have varied around this sentiment: spend years gaining a degree, then pay for an MA, then pay to be part of digs, and hope that you get lucky and gain a paid job in an industry dominated by an older generation that have held their posts for decades.

So ideally, these initiatives will gain interest from a wider stretch of the population, encourage entrepreneurship and lead to new paid roles and funding to continue research. I’d love to introduce Zooniverse to old peoples’ homes. It is a fabulous opportunity for people with sharp minds and free time to remain active in our society.

Dr Kathleen Martinez is another professional that I am following with interest. With a law degree from the Dominican Republic she recently came to public attention in the Channel 4 documentary Cleopatra’s Lost Tombwhich aired in October 2015. Without formal archeological training she has become a self-taught, and so-called, ‘maverick’ archaeologist and private detective, in the hope of discovering Cleopatra’s tomb and reestablishing the reputation of the last queen of Egypt. She has gained a licence from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities for the next digging season, scheduled to begin in November 2016 to May 2017. Dr Martinez’s professional path was relevant to this post because she presents and promotes an unconventional approach.

Dr Kathleen MartinezImage: Kathleen Martinez (front row third from left)

Discovery and enthusiasm for the mysteries that surround our existence shouldn’t be available to a small pocket of the world’s population, it is important to have an element of open access and tap into the knowledge reserves of those on the outskirts of the industry, eager to be involved. Public awareness and outreach is essential for solving the worlds problems.

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