the site of Adam Stevens


Citizen science

First of all I’d like to say that I’m sorry for not posting in a while I got distracted playing video games and getting a lot of lol wins. On the back of a short discussion on Twitter following Alice Bell’s great article on Science TV, I’ve been prompted to flesh out my thoughts on the Zooniverse.

Zooniverse is a (growing) repository of projects that aim to involve the general populace in data processing for a diverse range of fields (from galaxies to cyclones to bats).

Let me say, right now, that I don’t want to denigrate Zooniverse. It’s a wonderful idea and has helped to link people to the science that their taxes pay for.

But (and you might have guessed there was a ‘but’ coming), let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more. I’ve had a go at a number of the different projects and they were entertaining for about five minutes, after which I was often left thinking “yes, but what does it mean if that galaxy is elliptical and that one is spiral?” or similar.

Zooniverse often seems to be touted (along with projects like Foldit) as a new paradigm of citizen engagement with science, where non-scientists can really “make a difference”.

The exoplanet hunting part of Zooniverse got a lot of attention last year when it was featured on Stargazing Live and Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox used a lot of very excited adjectives to describe the public response and result of finding (yes, folks!) a whole new planet, which was no doubt exaggerated for televisual effect.

This apparent success clearly meant that this year’s Stargazing Live had to have a new ‘interactive’ element. The result was Planet Four, where people can annotate and categorise orbital pictures of the martian surface, in search of ‘black fans’ that can apparently tell us a lot about what’s going on. Some of my colleagues had some… interesting things to say about the project, but I hate throwing out baseless criticism, so here’s my attempt to be a little constructive.

It was hailed on this year’s Stargazing Live as another huge success (though nothing was said other than “Well done folks, you’ve looked at an awful lots of pictures), in which the UK population had provided a massive help to Mars science. Ignoring the potential issues with the validity of the science behind the whole endeavour, what Planet Four offers is a massive stack of newly categorised HiRise images. We have thousands of these already, thousands still uncategorised, and untold thousands of other images from other Mars missions. There aren’t enough Mars scientists in the world, and the ones there are don’t have enough time, to look at all these images, so yes, the people that take part in Planet Four are performing a valuable service.

These categorised, itemised images, though, are what happens before the science starts. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards. Connecting people to the science behind their Zooniverse clicks is difficult, and requires careful thought, probably from people cleverer than I, but sometimes it can be something simple.

Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.

This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour. I’m sure others could come up with better, more insightful ways of doing this, for the other Zooniverse projects as well, but let’s not lose sight of the aim of really connecting people to the actual science, not just the data collection bit at the beginning.

EDIT: I’ve open this post for comments. I’m interested to hear what you think.

Doctor of Philosophy

I am now officially registered for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, having passed the probation process.

My first year has gone like a whirlwind. I have read hundreds of research papers, books, attended meetings and conferences. In terms of actual research, I have not achieved what I had hoped, but am now in a position to really get cracking in the lab. The focus of my project has changed a little, but in my opinion, for the better. I am extraordinarily happy with my project as it stands.

Here’s to the next two years.

Red Mars

I’ve just finished reading Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Again.

It’s one of my favourite books and I’ve read it a couple of times already, the first time when I was probably only 14-15.

It wasn’t until now that I realised what an effect it has had on me.

If you’ve never read it, or never heard of it, I couldn’t recommend it more. Even if you’re not so into sci-fi, I would think you would find something you like about it.

Red Mars, the first part of the Mars Trilogy describes humanity’s colonisation of the Mars. It delves into the political, economic, scientific and personal ramifications of doing so. And I now realise that it’s what made me who I am today.

I remember, I know, that reading Mars, by Ben Bova, is what started my decade long (so far) obsession with the red planet. That definitely came before. But the Bova book is… lighter, ‘pulpier’ than Robinson’s. It only really describes going to Mars–apart from the slightly silly revelation at the end, it is more of an adventure story set on Mars than a story about Mars. The characters are simpler. The situations less complex.

I not aim to criticise – I re-read the book recently with no regrets, and enjoyed the latest sequel, Mars Life, but I understand what the book is.

It is not Red Mars.

On my latest reading I realised that Red Mars is me. It is, in fact, nearly everything about me. It is my dreams, my ambitions. It is my political and economic beliefs. It is the science I love, all of it, and it is the exact combination of science and life that I so desire.

I have often wondered where a lot of this came from. It didn’t come from my parents, or any of my friends, because I share almost none of it with them. Now some of that mystery is answered.

I am Sax. I am Ann. I am Nadia. I am Arkady. I am John. All these people are me, to some extent.

I could go on, at length, until nobody could not be bored. It makes me wonder how much of these people are a part of Robinson himself, and how much are fictional, probably based on people he knows. But the fact that I can map so much of who I am onto this one book.

The other books in the Trilogy, as well as the miscellaneous collection volume The Martians are all in my reading queue, so I will no doubt write more about them.

Hey, I AM a scientist!

(This is a long post. Forgive me.)

I’m a Scientist is over.

The results haven’t been announced yet, but we have no more live chats, we’re unlikely to get any more questions, and who knows how many kids will vote at this point in the week?

It’s been emotional. It’s been fun. It’s been frustrating, interesting, mouth openingly astounding, downright odd, amusing and insane in almost equal measure. I’ve met (as much as you can really meet people on the internet) some awesome people, stolen some of their ideas, and maybe opened up some new ideas and projects.

I was genuinely surprised by how much fun being bombarded with questions constantly for two weeks could be.

In the end though, it’s those questions that were the best bits. So I thought I would collect some of the best ones here.

There were amazing questions…


Questions that were so simple that only a kid could think of but were actually the most insightful…

questions that made us think…

topical questions…

questions that made me feel ridiculously unintelligent…

some more personal questions, which was really the whole point of I’m a Scientist in the first place, I think…

some interesting themes…

but by far my favourite bits were where our answers, either to the offline questions or the live chats, inspired further questions, opening up a dialogue with the kids, something that I think the format of I’m a Scientist really lacks, and really made me feel like what I said was getting through

I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow, when I have no questions to answer. Maybe I’ll just start spouting random facts to my friends and strangers I meet. Maybe I’ll find another outlet for this enthusiasm that I want to get out. No matter what, I’ll miss you, I’m a Scientist. Sniff.

Weekend diversion: I for one bow to our animal overlords

I saw a crow today, battling with a large stick. It was about three times as long as the crow, and probably weighed about half what the crow did. I stood for maybe five minutes, watching as the crow carefully balanced the stick in its beak, taking its time, moving it around, flying from the ground, first, to a low branch and eventually to the near top of a spindly tree. It was a struggle, or must have been, the bird straining to lift each time, but have what looked to be a gentle touch the whole way through.

It perplexed me. I could see no reason for the crow to want such a big branch. It would be no good for a nest, unless it was a contender for structural support in some kind of crow mansion. In the end, it seemed that there was no reason for the crow to want it–it dropped it, stood for a little while, then flew off.

The episode reminded me of a TED talk I saw a while ago. All the time I was watching, I saw a kind of intelligence underlying what the crow was doing. I didn’t understand it, but could see that at least it knew what it was doing.

The TED talk was all about just this–the unnervingly high intelligence of crows. They adapt quickly, learn to use tools. They learn from each other. Not only do they do all this, but they seem to be getting better at it, and they’re getting better because of us. This is slightly scary.

One of my favourite animals is the octopus. A while ago I read this article, which details the amazing mental faculties of these fascinating animals. I’ve played with some in my travels underwater, and observed some of their amazing behaviour, including their rock gardens and camouflage. According to the article, they have personalities, play with toys, can solve puzzles and seemingly can possess a sense of humour.

None of this was anything compared to sense of dread that developed after watching killer whales hunting on Frozen Planet. The killers work as a team, employ fairly complex fluid dynamical properties, and play with their prey.

At this point I am starting to fear for my life. If any of these creatures decided to, they could probably do us serious harm. More than that though, we walk around our planet with this strange sense of entitlement because we are (or seem to be) ‘intelligent’. Really though, this idea is challenged more and more regularly, and maybe we shouldn’t be so entitled.

Loving your job

I’m currently throwing myself (fairly weakly, admittedly) at the literature review of my first year report. The part I’m on at the moment is trying to give some background context, by talking about the scientific exploration of Mars. This means I’m getting paid to sit and read about this, something that I have been paying for the privilege of doing for many years, and would happy continue doing so for many years to come.

The other great thing is the reading itself. From a few different sources I’m learning about all the very human stories of these different missions, their failures, their triumphs. It really brings the science aspect down to Earth, especially when I’m sitting round the corner from one of the guys with probably the most human of all those stories.

All of this tied in quite nicely to the fact I’m listening my way through the Life Scientific podcasts. These provide a similar glimpse behind the science curtain to the people behind some really important discoveries. Professor Pillinger was one of the guests, and I heard his episode live, which is what turned me on to the podcast.

I really think that this is something that needs promoting. People like stories and they like stories about people more than just stale science. The problems and issues and fights and triumphs that we all face as scientists are all part of those human stories, and they make science so much more personal.

Another piece of serendipity – on one of the episodes, Professor Colin Blakemore makes a point about his controversial neurological experiments on animals. He says [Paraphrased] “I took my children into the lab. I realised that if I couldn’t explain, couldn’t justify what I was doing to them, then should I really have been doing it?”

A lot of the questions we’ve been getting on I’m a Scientist have been about the more personal aspects of science – were we nerds at school, did we enjoy it, what our days are like, and one I particularly liked, “If you were to find anything on mars what would you do? (jump up and down, laugh, tell the world immediately).” Some of them, though, have required me to think hard about what my research entails, with questions about how it would help people, how it would affect the world and so on being rather prevalent. My answer is definitely getting better.