Do you think a high school student could help fix the International Space Station? If you said no, think again!
Last week, 17-year-old Miles Solomon was sifting through data collected on the ISS when he noticed some wacky readings.
On further investigation, he found out that the sensor collecting this data was faulty! Miles’s remarkable story shows the power of ordinary citizens to make scientific discoveries— citizen science. Let’s take a closer look.
Miles’s story wouldn’t have been possible without his physics teacher, James O’Neill. James enrolled his class in a project sponsored by the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which provided the entire class with data from a radiation sensor on board the ISS.
But while the other students were discussing the data, Miles found something at the bottom of the spreadsheet that didn’t look quite right. As far as physicists know, energy can’t be negative. So he asked— why does it say there’s -1 energy here?
It turns out, Miles had discovered that the sensor was faulty! He emailed NASA, and after working together and analyzing more data, they found that the sensor was sending out negative values when there was no radiation. While NASA had thought this problem only occurred once or twice per year, Miles helped find that it actually occurred every day. Pretty cool, right?
Miles’s discovery isn’t the only example of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary science.
University of Washington researchers designed Foldit, an online puzzle game that challenges players to figure out the best way to fold proteins. It’s fun— players compete to find the best folds— but also could provide valuable insights into biological problems. For example, in just three weeks, Foldit players solved a 15-year long challenge by successfully modeling an enzyme that allows HIV to reproduce.
The Great Backyard Bird Count also doesn’t require a PhD. Whether you’re an enthusiastic birdwatcher or bored on a Sunday afternoon, you can count and report sightings of birds every year during a week in February. The goal is to learn more about bird behavior, environments, and conservation strategies. In 2015, the GBBC saw participants from over 100 countries recording 147,265 bird sightings, covering almost half the world’s bird species! Some of the more astute observers also pointed out some unseasonal bird sightings.
These are only two of many examples. The Internet age has allowed scientists and the public to communicate like never before, empowering citizens to collect data, analyze patterns, and contribute towards scientific progress. From star-gazing to bat-watching to quantum computing, we citizens can truly discover nature’s secrets— often from our own living room!