How GIS Improves the Process of Citizen Science

By Jim Baumann
Esri Writer

Researchers, Artists, and Technologies Engage with Local Groups Using Computer Mapping

Citizen science is an increasingly popular activity among a broad cross section of the population. Because the number and variety of opportunities for participation continue to grow, it is appealing to those in a widening range of age and physical ability. Participants have joined diverse scientific monitoring projects, including migratory bird studies and personal weather station observations, as well as provided their unused computer time for interstellar space exploration. Citizen science has even stimulated growth in the ecotourism industry.

Patrick Rickles at al 2“Regardless of their background or level of skill, citizen science provides people with a powerful platform that allows them to get involved in science and their environment,” says Patrick Rickles, research associate for the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) research group at University College London (UCL). “However, as valuable as this is, these programs often see the citizen as a passive participant that simply collects information and then hands it over to the researcher. At that point, their involvement in the project is considered complete.”

Recognizing the potential for change provided by greater engagement with citizen scientists, Muki Haklay, UCL professor of geographical information science (GISC), and Jerome Lewis, a UCL lecturer of anthropology, formed ExCiteS. This is an interdisciplinary group composed of researchers, artists, and information and communication technology specialists that work with local groups to better engage them in the process of citizen science through participatory action.  Continue reading

The Paleo Diet Belongs in Caves: What You Really Need to Know About Diets

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Diets provide a great opportunity to exercise critical thinking. Pick any diet and pick it apart. Do this as a mental exercise or, if you teach, with your classes. Chances are that many of your students’ parents have dieted or are dieting. In this article, I am picking on the currently trendy Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet persists. I have a strange theory about diets. The first part is that people don’t like to diet. They like to eat whatever they choose. I suspect that this is especially true of libertarians. The second part is that many people see their food as a health problem and would like to change their eating patterns.

Many years ago, the Grapefruit Diet was very popular. This was great for people who loved grapefruit but not so much for those who found them too sour or too messy. Then, there was the problem that grapefruits are like the proverbial Chinese dinner that left you hungry shortly after finishing it. “Have another piece of grapefruit” just doesn’t work for most people.

Skeleton and restoration model of Neanderthal (La Ferrassie 1). Exhibit in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan.

Skeleton and restoration model of Neanderthal (La Ferrassie 1). Exhibit in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan.

Anyway, my theory is that diets are successful not if they work but rather when they cater to people’s desires. If you could get away with an ice cream diet, you’d have the world doing it because “everyone likes ice cream.” I haven’t yet seen a broccoli diet even though it would probably work better than grapefruit.  Continue reading

The End of Dark Energy

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Dr. Peter A. Milne and his associates have found an unexpected and, to the cosmological community, startling result from their surveys of supernovae. This result illustrates both the consistent and varying nature of science at the same time.

Dr. Peter Milne

Dr. Peter Milne

We know from a great many astronomical observations that the universe has been expanding for a little short of 14 billion years and continues to expand. Because of gravity, everyone expected that this expansion was slowing over time with theories and measurements suggesting that this expansion would eventually coast to a very dilute universe drifting apart at ever slower speeds.

In the 1990s, some astronomers separately discovered that the universe is expanding ever more rapidly instead of the expected opposite slowing of expansion using measurements of he brightness of very distant supernovae. They received the Nobel Prize in physics for this work in 2011.

Stars can explode. One common explosion is called a nova. A much more cataclysmic and extremely brighter explosion is a supernova. Supernovae shine with a brightness that can exceed that of all of the hundred billion or so stars in its galaxy. For this reason, we can see them in distant galaxies that are barely visible in our best telescopes. A supernova is a rare event occurring about three times a century in a galaxy the size of our Milky Way. With hundreds of billions of galaxies, however, it’s not too hard to find hundreds each year using modern astronomical equipment.

A special sort of supernova created when the two stars in a binary star system go through a specific series of interactions is known as a type 1a supernova. Because of the steps required to reach supernova status, the brightness of these type 1a supernovae has been considered to be a constant that can be used to estimate distances to very distant galaxies. Brightness declines with distance in a very precise manner.

There remains the possibility that acceleration of very distant bodies in our universe away from each other is a basic property of our space-time structure not detectable at smaller distances of only millions or even tens of millions of light-years, that “dark energy” is just an attempt to recast a phenomenon into understandable terms, just as the caloric theory of heat was long ago. -HK

The measurements of these supernovae were the reason to believe that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. We are seeing these very distant supernovae with light that started its journey over ten billion years ago when the universe was very young. Dr. Milne has discovered that type 1a supernovae are not all the same but fall into two categories of different brightness. Furthermore, the supernovae from the early universe are, on average, less bright than those in the more recent universe.

The lower brightness of the distant supernovae may well be due to less inherent brightness instead of greater distance. This finding destroys a fair piece of that Nobel Prize discovery. Dr. Milne still attests that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, just not so fast, but the vast number of recalculations being done to account for this new discovery will take some time.  Continue reading

Dark Matter Clues

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

You may have seen the headlines already. “What is dark matter made of? Galaxy cluster collisions offer clues,” shouts the Christian Science Monitor.1

Here you have a great moment to engage students in something exciting and to use critical thinking. Dark matter is a hypothesis to explain why stars in galaxies circle around their centers faster than the observable matter says that they should, as well as other more sophisticated reasons. It’s called “dark” because it does not emit light and because you cannot see it. You might also have called it “invisible” matter, but much matter seems invisible. Besides, “dark” implies spooky, and this stuff is definitely spooky because ordinary matter moves right through it as though it isn’t there, except for gravitational effects.

The new finding just reported tell us that dark matter behaves just the same way with itself. One patch of dark matter moves right through another as though it’s not there at all (again, except for gravitational effects). This result pushes back against the most popular idea about the identity of dark matter, that it’s WIMPs — weakly interacting massive particles — because particles don’t just pass right through each other.

Dark matter is invisible. Based on the effect of gravitational lensing, a ring of dark matter has been detected in this image of a galaxy cluster (CL0024+17) and has been represented in blue. NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University)

Dark matter is invisible. Based on the effect of gravitational lensing, a ring of dark matter has been detected in this image of a galaxy cluster (CL0024+17) and has been represented in blue. Image from NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University).

Two explanations come to mind. Some physicists doing the work still are seeking particles, but these other explanations could help get around that barrier. There are some truly exotic explanations going around as well, such as the existence of a “mirror universe.” It’s best to stick with the simplest ones, though. Occam’s Razor tells us so.

One explanation is that gravity just doesn’t work exactly as we expect it to, especially when dealing with very large masses spanning very large volumes of space. This is not a very popular explanation. The other is that dark matter is really energy. Because of the equivalence of energy and matter demonstrated by Einstein and captured in his famous equation, E=mc2, energy is affected by and causes gravity.  Continue reading

Mars One CEO Answers Questions About Mission Feasibility

Amersfoort, 19th March 2015 – Mars One recently published a video in which Bas Lansdorp, CEO and Co-founder of Mars One, replies to recent criticism concerning the feasibility of Mars One’s human mission to Mars.

Question: What do you think of the recent news articles that doubt the feasibility of Mars One?

BL: At Mars One we really value good criticism because it helps us to improve our mission. We get a lot of criticism from our advisors, and that is also exactly what we want from them. The recent bad press about Mars One was largely caused by an article on, which contains a lot of things that are not true. For example, the suggestion was made that our candidates were selected on the basis of how much money they donate to Mars One. That is simply not true, and it is very easy to find that on our website. There are a lot of current Round Three candidates that did not make any donations to Mars One, and there are also lots of people that did not make it to the third round that contributed a lot to Mars One. The two things are not related at all, and to say that they are is simply a lie. The article also states that there were only 2,700 applications for Mars One, which is not true. We offered the reporter, the first journalist ever, access to our list of 200,000 applications, but she was not interested in that. It seems that she is more interested in writing a sensational article about Mars One than in the truth.

We will have to delay the first unmanned mission to 2020. Delaying our first unmanned mission by two years also means that all the other missions will move by the same period of time, with our first human landing now planned for 2027. -B.L.

Question: Concerns have been voiced about the thoroughness of the astronaut selection process. What is your response to that?

BL: We started our astronaut selection with over 200,000 applications that were submitted online. The application included a video and a lot of psychological questions for our candidates. We used that to narrow down the candidates to about 1000 that had to do a medical check, which was very similar to the check for NASA astronauts. All the remaining candidates then underwent an interview. The interview and all other parts of the selection process were led by Norbert Kraft, our Chief Medical Officer. He has worked on astronaut selection for 5 years at the Japanese Space Agency, and at NASA he researched crew composition for long duration space missions.  Continue reading

Mars One Fizzles?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

One of the craziest schemes to garner worldwide publicity and lots of contributions is having some new problems. Mars One has lost one of its final hundred to misgivings about the process by which he was chosen. Will more come out with similar stories? Is this the beginning of the end for Mars One?

The Mars One stray is Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin with a PhD in, wait for it, physics and astrophysics. With this education and background, he’s not just a scientist well equipped with Carl Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” he’s also a specialist in getting around the universe.

Mars One is a reach too far. Until I see plenty of funding and until I see that water mission and then see the first supply mission land successfully, I will remain cautiously skeptical. -H.K.

I have written plenty about Mars One and its challenges. In the end, I stated that its biggest challenge is not radiation or water or air or food but money. It’s not just the money to send that first expedition to Mars but also the money to keep sending more until the colony is self-sufficient. The first expedition requires several preparatory flights to deliver lots of habitat modules, freeze-dried food, solar panels, machinery, rovers, and more. Each of those unmanned preparatory flights will cost very large sums of money, likely a billion or more dollars apiece.  Continue reading

Life on Frozen Moons

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Now that three of the moons of our solar system’s gas giant planets have been said to have subsurface oceans, it’s time to take stock and consider the meaning of these analyses.

Ganymede and Europa of Jupiter along with Enceladus of Saturn are likely to have oceans far below their frozen surfaces. Should we send unmanned missions to explore these unusual moons, and what should we be searching for? Many have exclaimed that we have extremophiles (organisms that survive in extreme environments) here on Earth, so we cannot discount the likelihood of life beneath miles of ice where the Sun never shines.

This image or video was catalogued by Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Enceladus’ north polar region. This image was catalogued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

If we search near the geysers of Enceladus, might we find the frozen remnants of miniature fish coughed up from deep down inside this odd moon? Answering this question requires more than a moment’s thought. What is life? How does it begin and advance? Are the ingredients for life available in those cold, deep seas?

Here’s my definition. Life uses available energy and materials to reproduce itself and has the potential for errors in reproduction that will allow for evolution. From what we know, those vast, cold underground oceans have the necessary ingredients. Without an energy source, they would be frozen and not liquid. Heat coming from the inside of a moon must provide chemicals that can both be used as chemical energy sources and as materials for constructing living organisms.  Continue reading