Citizen science is still there, and you can make a big contribution while waiting out the pandemic


This isn’t the first time I’ve encouraged Daily Kos readers to pay a visit to the citizen science site at Zooniverse. That’s because the site has been exceptionally clever not just at putting forward a set of projects in which ordinary interested citizens can make real contributions, but they’ve done a fantastic job at configuring these projects in ways that make scientific discovery enjoyable. 

Personally, I’ve spent hours identifying individual chimpanzees (including watching some of them teach their children to open nuts using stones) and identified hundreds of potential planets orbiting distant stars. I’ve also transcribed old ship’s logs, sifted data shared between naturalists, helped to recreate an 18th-century city, and helped to recover a collection of anti-slavery documents.

Transcribing ancient Hebrew at Scribes of the Cairo Geniza
Transcribing ancient Hebrew at the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza project

As data sets get completed, projects come and go, but there is always a set of fascinating projects where volunteers aren’t just doing busywork, but making a real contribution. 

For those with the determination, there is a current project to extract the names of those killed by the Nazis from an assortment of old records. If that sounds too grim for a sunny spring day, switch to transcribing the notebooks of “computers”—as in the women who did the math behind some of astronomy’s greatest discoveries. And if that gets you in a space-faring mood, you can try to find what’s out there beyond Neptune by searching though the data at Planet 9.

Over the course of the last year, it seems like everyone has picked up a hobby. There has probably been more bread baked and more sweaters crocheted than any time since 1960. But just as people are getting awfully tired of the pandemic, some of those new obsessions are starting to become just … sessions (personally, I’m between crops of fresh rosemary, and without it, the one-hour focaccia just isn’t the same).

Identifying undersea sounds at the Dolphin Chat project
Identifying undersea sounds at the Dolphin Chat project

As you wait out what will, hopefully, be just a few more months before things get back to normal (normalish? normalesque? normal-adjacent?), this would be a great time to step in and learn to translate fragments of ancient script, or identify pollinators high in the canopy of African forests, or help in the search for dark energy. If you have a great ear, you might help to identify frogs by their song, or crack the code on the language of dolphins.

And if you find a project you like, let others know. Not only is this more fun and satisfying than that app you’ve been playing on your phone, it’s a lot lower in calories than most COVID-era hobbies.

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