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  • Writer's pictureSimon Hurst

Citizen Science – how you can get involved – 21st March 2024

So, some guy you may have heard of, Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke, in 1676 wrote: "What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

But, wait a second, Newton didn't originate it. That was the 12th-century theologian and author John of Salisbury (honest, look it up). But let’s give him a pass. The poor bloke was probably concussed what with that apple falling on his head.

But the point I’m trying to make is that citizen science has been around a lot longer than you may have thought. Mark kicked things off with some history, by first showing us some images of ancient star maps.

Dunhuang Star Chart from Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)

Almost 3,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq, a Babylonian star catalogue:

All the above, by the way, was done by mathematicians, not astronomers… pretty cool, right?

Now here comes the science. The 1980s marked an exciting era for astronomy enthusiasts and citizen scientists alike. Mark's chosen project, which involved analyzing photographic plates, was a pioneering effort in crowd-sourced science. Participants like him would meticulously scan through these plates, searching for the faintest smudges of light that signified distant galaxies. This collective endeavor not only contributed to our understanding of the universe but also fostered a sense of community among those who shared a passion for the stars. It's an amazing reminder of how curiosity and collaboration can lead to remarkable discoveries.

And guess what, Mark brought in some of these plates for us to have a look at and try our own hand at counting galaxies. So, right off the bat, he’s got us doing science. Sneaky, Mark… very sneaky.

Examining photographic plates in the search for Galaxies

One project Mark has been currently working on is the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) project. Mark delved into his bag and brought out some light curve handouts. Oh yes, we’re on to you now, Mark. The study of these light curves to identify potential exoplanet transits is such a cool aspect of astronomy. It's like uncovering some hidden cosmic secret, one small squiggly dip in brightness at a time. These curves can tell us so much about distant worlds, from their size and composition to their orbits. It was no wonder that these handouts sparked lively debates and head-scratching moments as everyone tried to interpret the squiggly lines that represent such monumental discoveries. Mark helped by walking the room and explaining what we were looking at.

Mark helps the audience to interpret star light curve graphs

But light curves just don’t show us if a planet is going around the star. Oh no, you can also tell what kind of star it is, and each is different. They might look like a dot of light to us, but those wiggly lines can say if it’s a variable, binary, pulsating, & one even looks like a heartbeat ECG, which is awesome.

So, you may be thinking… well, if it’s just looking at squiggly lines, why don’t we get AI to do it instead? Well, "sorry Dave, I can’t do that". I could probably do another 2001 quotes from sci-fi films, but I’ll terminator it there (I know, I couldn’t help myself). The point is, although AI is great, it’s just not there yet. Us humans are just too good at pattern recognition, so Skynet will just have to wait for now :)

Next up… Maths. Oh yes, we had to go there. Now, before you go getting a headache or going somewhere else, this one’s pretty simple in concept. Yeah, that’s coming from a guy who uses maths for dummies' cheat sheet… well, almost :)

Here's the equation:

So, what does that mean? Don’t panic, I’ve got the explanation for you.

  • Rp: This represents the radius of a planet.

  • R*: Refers to the stellar radius (the radius of our sun).

  • Depth: Indicates the transit depth, which is the fraction of the star’s light blocked by the planet during a transit event.

And that's how we can tell how big a planet is. Simple, eh :)

So, let’s wrap it all up. Why bother?

Well, you get involved in cutting-edge science.

You don’t need any tech skills.

You get great support.

You get contacts with professional scientists.

What do I need:

A relatively fast internet connection (there is a lot of data to download!).

2 Hrs per week or more.

That’s it.

How do I get started:

OK, sit back have a coffee to read this part.

Don’t panic, I’m only joking, it’s easy. Just head over to:

choose what project you fancy and get started or

for a great list of projects and where to go to do them.

Thanks, Mark, for providing a great workshop on this interesting topic for us all. 

Pictures from the workshop (by Mike Meynell):

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