Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sit-Back Science

by magdissimo, This was initially posted at Future Science Leaders Engineers 2012 Cool Science.

Research can take place in more places than you may think. Sterile labs and well-stocked work benches are great when you have the resources, but for the casual Cousteau and the impromptu Hubble, all you need is a laptop, a comfy chair and a hot cup of coffee. 

Today’s post is all about research projects that you can actively take part in, all from the comfort of your favourite WiFi hotspot.

1) SETI@home

Among the trees and the hills in the beautiful landscape of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, there lies a curious thing: the Arecibo radio telescope, and at a whopping 305m in diameter, it just so happens to be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world.  As you might have guessed from the name, its purpose is to pick up and record radio waves.  The thinking goes that if there’s intelligent life somewhere close by, any radio signals they could be using could oscillate past Earth and then the telescope would pick them up.  To maximize the chances of us finding transmissions, the telescope is always recording.

If this seems like an enormous amount of data, you’re right on.  There is no one computer that can possibly go through all this data to look for patterns, but many thousands of computers might just do the job.  So began SETI@home.


Quick and free to install, it takes up a little bit of your CPU to run quietly in the background while you work away on your computer.  It scans data from the Arecibo telescope, looking for patterns, then sends off the results to move on to the next piece of data.  I myself have it turned on as my screen saver, but you limit it’s access to your CPU to your liking. 

Let’s go back to high-school biology for a moment and think about what makes your cells function.  Every cell in your body is choreographed and taken care of by various proteins in your body, some going off to repair damaged tissues, others sucking nutrients out of your food to give you sustenance.  Proteins are made in precise sequences by your ribosomes, and your ribosomes get the blueprints and the action plans on how and when to make these proteins from none other than your DNA.
A curious thing:  DNA and ribosomes don’t speak the same language, so to speak.  That’s where RiboNucleic Acid comes into play, otherwise known as RNA.  RNA acts as an interpreter for DNA and essentially runs the show in the cell circus.  RNA does this by folding and changing its shape to communicate, so scientists are now trying to catalogue and study the different forms of RNA.
Enter EteRNA.  EteRNA is a game where YOU design the RNA, helping researchers understand how it can form and shape itself.  There are weekly competitions and your designs have the potential to shed some serious, practical insight on how RNA works.
3) Zooniverse
This one is my absolute favourite.  I debated splitting it up into several different headings but I thought that you may prefer exploring on your own, so I’ve included descriptions of three projects within the Zooniverse network that I myself use.  Be warned, they are quite addicting; when I started writing this blog post I was set back an hour while I digitally translated ancient Greek manuscripts.
Zooniverse started off with Galaxy Zoo, a site that takes direct images from Hubble and has its viewers directly interpret what they see.  It became so popular that it expanded and now boasts 9 projects that you can interpret and help out with.  They are all easy to learn, fun to use and incredibly rewarding because you are very involved with the process.
A) Seafloor Explorer
Go through images taken of the sea floor and identify the ground cover and the species present in the photo.  Often you’ll have to go through several pages of sand and gravel, but it’s really something when you come across an image covered in sea stars or hermit crabs.  I even came across an image of what looked like a skinny blue snake-like creature.
B) Ancient Lives

This is probably my favourite.  These scrolls have been scanned and uploaded, and it is up to you to identify each symbol with the appropriate Greek letter/ hieroglyph.  I actually found Zooniverse because I was trying to learn the Greek alphabet, and I can tell you that reading ancient Greek manuscripts has helped immensely.  Also, instant ice-breaker.

C) Planet Hunters
The process of finding far-off solar system planets is difficult, but that doesn’t stop many home enthusiasts from trying.  To do so, you usually wait for a transit, or when a planet crosses in front of a star to form a little dip in the light.  With this site, most of the work is done for you; all you have to do is identify potential transit sites given light data from distant stars.  Since 1995, over 500 planets (not necessarily from this site) have been found in other solar systems.
About this contributor: M is a high school student in BC, Canada. She can usually be found playing the accordion or working on one of her many building projects and hopes to one day become an inventor.  

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