Several years ago, I met inventor James Paar at a tech event in New York City. Paar was demoing his Open Space Agency Ultrascope, an open-source, 3D-printed telescope (powered by a smartphone!) that’s intended to make astronomy feasible for interested amateurs across the globe.
Paar’s concept is that a widespread community of these citizen scientists will be able to watch the sky for approaching asteroids potentially on a collision course with Earth. They’ll then report their sightings to NASA, exponentially expanding the agency’s ability to monitor asteroid activity and maybe, well, save the planet.
No part of this project would even be conceivable without today’s technology—cloud computing, high-speed networks, low-cost, high-performance computer chips, and of course, 3D printing. Michelle Z. Donahue’s cover story in this month’s issue of the PC Magazine Digital Edition—”Citizen Science: Do Try This at Home”—showcases a dazzling amount of like-minded projects, from global efforts similar to Paar’s to very local ones.
The Smell Pittsburgh app, for example, lets residents of my hometown tag nasty odors on a virtual map that shows other smell reports from that day; the results are also reported to the local health department.
If you’ve always had a yearning to discover more about the world around you, there’s an excellent chance you can find a tech-empowered citizen science endeavor to match your interests. Search online for “citizen science projects” and, say, “oceanography” or “microbiology,” and you could be on your way to lab-coat country. You can simultaneously add to humanity’s collective knowledge and scratch your itch to learn.
At a time when some branches of science are not given the credence and support they deserve and need, it’s heartening to see that technology can democratize scientific study, making it available and affordable to everyday folks with a thirst for knowledge and a desire to contribute.