Science at Home

How Citizen Science Might Flourish in Virtual Worlds

The back of the head of Matthew T. Dearing's "avatar" in Second Life (it's waiting for the presentation to begin.)

Last weekend, Dynamic Patterns Research attended a virtual presentation in Second Life. It wasn’t an imaginary talk, but actually a very real discussion that included George Djorgovski, a top astrophysics from Caltech and the popular science writer from MSNBC, Alan Boyle. It was virtual in the sense that all attendees only had to travel to the closest computer connected to the Internet, log on to their Second Life account, virtually sit in the user-generated, 3D world, and listen and ask questions just as one might do when attending an “old-school” open lecture at a local university.

The presentation was about how science research and communication is finding its way into virtual interfaces, such as Second Life. They discussed how this approach is beginning to facilitate a new way for professional scientists to conduct their work. In many respects, scientific collaboration is already conducted virtually, as is a large percentage of all interpersonal communication these days through email and online collaboration and social tools. Any interaction not involving the direct, analog, face-to-face dialog could be considered “virtual.” But, an interface like Second Life intends to be different and could be the next era of virtual interaction.


Education experiences from institutions of higher learning and life-long, informal learning centers, such as museum, are already underway in Second Life. For an extensive overview of hundreds of programs interacting now, the SimTech Second Life Education Wiki is a great starting point. In particular, the Exploratorium in San Francisco hosts a Second Life presence, and they recently held an in-world dance party for the Lunar Eclipse event on December 10, 2010. (So, it might not be clear that a dance party is wholly educational, but will assume it was used as a popular traffic generator to introduce users to the many impressive interactive exhibits that have been developed inside Second Life.)

A nice crowd in Second Life for the event. Except everyone was still listening through a third-party radio streaming application.


The interface of Second Life is still limited, however, but the potential is certainly obvious. The graphical processing requirements are high, so my bearable laptop with Celeron 2.0 GHz, 2 GB RAM certainly chunked right along in SL, which did not offer a smooth, fluid virtual reality. There is audio capability within SL, but for some reason this particular virtual meeting required listing to the audio over a separate Internet radio-streaming system, through an alternate website. So, in this case, the Second Life interface really wasn’t required at all to complete the virtual interaction of the presentation: we just needed to click in to the audio stream and interact via live online chat.. The visuals in SL were just clunky icing on the cake. But, again, the point here, is to present the possibility of where this sort of progress into virtual worlds that are readily accessible from home can go.


For citizen scientists, the Second Life interface can be an interesting advantage for future interaction. Groups of people can congregate in a designated Second Life space and discuss projects (as they could just do via email, any online chat system, discussion group platform, or social media interface). More significantly, however, citizen science groups can take advantage of SL by graphically presenting virtual reconstructions of projects, equipment, data analysis, photographs, graphical how-to instructions, and any other reporting of personal work done at home.

In particular, the power of virtually reconstructing real world projects, devices, tools, and even data allows other users in Second Life to directly (er, virtually) interact with and manipulate these objects. For example, a citizen scientists might be building a piece of equipment in her garage and is having some difficulty with a certain design issue. She can construct the progress in Second Life and have others join in and virtually work with the device, collaborate, brainstorm, and innovate together to move the project forward.

And, this is just a straightforward example of the possibilities, which are limited only by the imagination, creativity and excitement of sharing and collaborating with others from around the world. If you are interested in trying out Second Life as a citizen scientist, or have your own ideas about how collaborating in virtual worlds can be productive for citizen science efforts, please contact us at Dynamic Patterns Research to find out what we can make happen together.



Dynamic Patterns Research Identifies Candidate Exoplanet

Light curve for star SPH10046881 with candidate transiting exoplanet, analyzed by Dynamic Patterns Research on Planet

Recently, Dynamic Patterns Research featured a review of the important citizen science project of Planet Hunters where anyone can sign up to visually analyze light curves obtained from NASA’s Kepler Discovery Mission (read more).

We continued to work through the light curve data, sifting through images that may or may not contain potential signatures for a transiting planet around the observed star.

The Planet Hunters team carefully reviews the identifications, and just announced a new set of potential exoplanets. These newly discovered light curves will still require additional independent observations and measurements before any claim is made about the existence of a planet.

At this time, Dynamic Patterns Research is listed as a co-identifier of a potential exoplanet around a dwarf star about 0.87 times the size of our Sun. It has an apparent visual magnitude of 15.2 and a temperature 5,730 K. More information about this star can be see on the Kepler Target Search Results database (view). This star, labelled SPH10046881, and it’s light curve with the apparent exoplanet transit can be view online on Planet Hunters (view).

More light curve data is pouring into the Planet Hunters system from the ongoing Kepler dataset, so now is a great time to get involved in Planet Hunters. It’s not difficult to participate, but it is so important to help out with this critical process of discovery right now. Someday we may need to learn from the experiences and histories of these other planetary systems to prepare for the future of our own home world. And, we may even need to take the long haul trip to a neighbor planet — hopefully for a joy ride — but possibly for the continuing existence of humanity.

Start hunting now!

January 2011 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

As we begin the second decade of the third millennium, take time to watch the Moon as is appears to visit near Jupiter, Saturn and Venus this month. It will be full on January 19, and maybe on that particular evening you should take a moment to just stare at the Moon. Think about it. There is this enormous rock floating around you and it just keeps rotating about. Time continues forward and that Moon appears to you now the same way it did to the Earth three millenniums previous and it will still look the same three millenniums in the future. You are but a speck in both the expansive dimension of space as well as the immense duration of time, but it is incredible that you exist, and that the Moon exists, and that together you and it are part of an amazing reality.

January 2011 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

December 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

This month we can enjoy the active Geminid Meteor Shower, which will peak on December 13-14. Viewing conditions should be favorable with the Moon in its First Quarter and setting several hours before dawn. This shower results from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon (view orbit diagram), which was discovered in 1983. The Geminids appear to be getting more intense every year, and we might be in for quite a treat on December 14, 2093 when 3200 Phaethon passes within 0.0198 Au.

Another December experience will be a total eclipse of the Moon on December 21 starting at 7:41 UT (1:41 am CST). Lasting for about an hour, the Moon will appear red-orange from the Earth’s shadow at totality, and will be visible to everyone in North America.

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December 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

November 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

Although it’s getting a little chilly outside for the citizen scientists in the Northern Hemisphere, there are always plenty of astounding stars and planets to view in the dark of night. Jupiter is glowing brightly, and is sitting very near the Moon right now at the middle of the month. The Leonid Meteor Shower will peak on November 17 (read more), which is all thanks to debris that fell from Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

To plan your November nighttime viewing, download this month’s Sky Map, courtesy of Whether you are looking with your eyes, binoculars, or a telescope, let us know what you find particular interesting and beautiful this month!

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November 2010 Northern Hemisphere Sky Map

Observe the Close Encounter of Comet 103P/Hartley 2

Skimming by Earth as close as 11 million miles on October 20, the apparently young Hartley 2 comet will be nearly visible to the unaided eye. With binoculars, it will appear even better as a fuzzy, green blob, and a backyard telescope will offer excellent viewing. The next several days should be busy mornings for amateur astronomers, and will also be a great time for anyone to do some easy viewing of a special celestial event.

Head outside while it is still dark before sunrise, and look upward to the north. Passing through the constellation Auriga will be an unusual green blip from October 17 through October 20. If you are skilled in taking photographs… or, just want to give it a try!… please post your images on our Facebook page and tell us about how you took the image and what equipment you used. We are very interested to see the results from experienced amateurs as well as first-time astro-photographers.

Sky map for Comet 103P/Hartley 2 on October 17 through 20
Sky map for Comet 103P/Hartley 2 on October 17 through 20. Courtesy

Discovered in 1986 by Malcolm Hartley, Comet 103P/Hartley 2 orbits the Sun about every 6 1/2 years. Based on current estimates of mass loss, it’s expected to last for another 700 years. [ READ MORE ] What’s particularly interesting about this comet is that it is relatively small–just less than a mile in diameter–but the nucleus is still very active. On November 4, 2010, NASA’s Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft will venture only 435 miles away from the comet to frantically take images and data about the unique comet. At this point in the comet’s orbit, it will be about at its closest approach to the Sun, called the perihelion distance, and the ice formed during it’s long journey in the outer solar system will be vaporizing at rates that are much higher than other previously observed comets. EPOXI will be close enough to take stunning images of out-gassing, and it will potentially observe physical features directly on the surface of the nucleus at a resolution of 7 meters per pixel.

Orbit Diagram of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 generated from NASA's JPL Small-Body Database Browser
Orbit Diagram of Comet 103P/Hartley 2 generated from NASA's JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

This study is so important because Hartley 2 will be only the fifth comet nucleus viewed up close and personal by NASA. And, comets are critically important because they represent untouched remnants from the formation of our solar system. These chunks of pre-system debris did not get sucked into a forming planet long ago, so they contain material that was present way before even the Earth started preparing itself for the development of life.

Be sure to learn more about this exciting Comet 103P/Hartley 2 and how NASA is preparing to study the orbiting body [ READ MORE ]. Take the time this week to head out in the early morning and look up for the green, glowing blob that might prove to be a treasure trove of new scientific understanding.

Last updated October 26, 2021