You can do science too! Learn how you can make a difference by doing real science to help solve our planet's most pressing problems.

Thinking About Thinking


Photo Credit: Serge Melki via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Serge Melki via Wikimedia Commons


Project: Online Wisdom Lab (OWL)

If you have ever formally studied psychology, one thing probably stood out: the subjects of the studies you read about were nearly always college students. A forthcoming set of apps hopes to change that.

The Online Wisdom Lab at the University of Birmingham is developing a series of surveys and games to learn about changes in thinking skills, decision making, and health behaviour during adulthood.

“We currently have no idea how our thinking changes as we progress through adulthood, the time when we make many of the most important decisions of our lives,” says Lily FitzGibbon, one of the researchers involved in the project. “To tackle this obvious gap in our knowledge, we’ve designed an app full of tests and questionnaires to see how and when changes happen as we get older and wiser.”

The project is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK, and the apps are due to be launched in May of this year. If you live in Birmingham, you can check out a number of events taking place ahead of the launch to generate interest. Otherwise, you can check out the Facebook page and Twitter feed for the project to get a notice when the project launches.

Hunt For Asteroids… At Your Desk

Asteroids, we have a few. (Image credit: NASA)
Asteroids, we have a few. (Image credit: NASA)

Project: Asteroid Data Hunter App

A citizen science challenge has spawned a citizen science app.

In 2014, NASA announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge. In a series of contests, participants were asked to develop improved algorithms to find asteroids in telescope images. The challenge offered more than $50,000 in prizes, and concluded in December.

The winning solutions from each contest have now been combined to produce a desktop application to hunt asteroids. The app is available for Windows (7.1+) and Mac (10.2.X+) users, with a Linux Ubuntu version coming soon. You can grab the app at this link.

Astronomers search for asteroids by comparing images taken of the same piece of sky over time, to see what has moved. This used to be done by hand, but with the proliferation of quality imagery from a number of ground-based telescopes, there is now a glut of data to mine. Computers can process data imagery very quickly… with the right algorithm.

Asteroids are a major focus for NASA right now. Asteroids have struck Earth in the past, often with devastating consequences. One of the best known recent impacts was the Tunguska event, where an impact or explosion knocked down millions of trees over a huge section of Siberia in 1908.

On the positive side, we may soon be able to capture asteroids to mine them for their resources, both for use here on Earth, and to help establish colonies on other planets or moons. Asteroids are known to contain water (in the form of ice), and elements like iridium, palladium, and platinum.

Bring out your inner iNaturalist

What will you discover? (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grand Teton National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)
What will you discover? (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grand Teton National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Project: iNaturalist.org

When we were children, we naturally spent a great deal of time exploring the world around us. Everything was a delight. The robins in our backyard were new to us; the spiders in the houseplants were fascinating; the squirrels at the park were endlessly entertaining.

Over time, of course, we became accustomed to such sights, and other things distracted us. Luckily, there is now a way to recapture the wonder of our youth and contribute to the scientific understanding of our planet to boot: we can become amateur naturalists.

iNaturalist.org bills itself as a global community for naturalists. Think of it as Facebook meets the BBC’s Planet Earth series (the latter, incidentally, I highly recommend!). It’s a website where you can you can upload your observations in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn more about the natural world.

You can begin your journey by registering here using your email or any social media account. You can then dive right in by adding observations from where you live, or get an informal education by browsing the Learn! section. Want to see what people near you have observed? You can do that too by browsing the observations section.

If you want something more structured, there’s an entire area of the site devoted to specific projects. For example, National Geographic is running a Great Nature Project, while AfriBats focuses on bats in Africa. Texan naturalists are particularly active on the site, with a Herps project and a bird project. Of course, you can always start your own project, perhaps to track the biodiversity in your own area.

Finally, computer geeks and web developers can get in on the act, as the software running iNaturalist is open source.

According to the site’s founders, Nate Agrin, Jessica Kline, and Ken-ichi Ueda, “if enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature. That’s the vision behind iNaturalist.org.”