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.



We Are All Makers, a TED Talk by Dale Dougherty

The fundamental evolutionary advantage of human beings over all other species on this planet is our ability to make things. We make tools to make more complex tools to make end products that help us survive, thrive, and develop. Pre-humans may have started making simple tools over 2 1/2 millions years ago and serious complex tool-making took off during the Bronze Age just a brief 5,000 years ago.

Ever since those grand old days, humans have been exponentially improving our making abilities. Today, we’re extremely good at it, and there is a growing population of amateur “Makers” who are creating a serious hobby out of playing with technology and discovering personal skills to prove that they are the ultimate in human beings right from their own garage.

Dale Dougherty, the founder and publisher of MAKE: Magazine, recently presented a TED Talk on the growing presence of makers across the country. They tinker in their garages, at Maker Faires, and at hackerspaces, and Dale wants to convinces us all that each one of us is a maker at heart. He must be right — we are human beings, after all — we just need to tap into that core evolutionary skill and start making.

Watch Dale Dougherty’s TED Talk from the Motor City:

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!

A New Model for Citizen Science in the Classroom

The scientific literacy of the American student has been dropping for quite some time now, and we often hear about this serious problem (here and here and, oh, over here). Our national educational system — from both the public and private sectors — are in place to do something about it, and many have great intentions to do so.

One institution of higher education, Bard College, launched a new program before classes started in January 2011 with the goal of instilling a new sense of appreciation for scientific understanding and process (read the press release, April 10, 2010). Citizen Science at Bard College (visit) is required for all incoming Freshman and includes faculty from across the country to engage with students in a new and exciting educational forum. (Read more: Citizen Science at Bard Article.)

The inaugural students’ responses from this largely “right-brained”-leaning school were mixed.  Some were annoyed that they lost time from their break while others approached the academic pursuit as something that could really broaden their outlook. This unsurprising span is certainly common in all classrooms, but with no grades nor credits at stake and only the requirement of guided scientific playing, this effort by Bard College is an outstanding idea to spark renewed excitement in science for the next generation of United States citizens.

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“An Infusion of Science Where the Arts Reign” :: The New York Times :: January 21, 2011 :: [ READ ]

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The Citizen Science course from Bard College should not directly create a new breed of professional scientists — this is the opposite goal of the program. More scientists in this country are always needed, but everyone doesn’t need to play that role. This country more desperately needs a broader base of its citizens to have an increased appreciation of science and technology.

We don’t need to be able to calculate the thermal emission and resulting temperature distribution in our living rooms when we just need to decide if we want to screw in a 60 W or 100 W light bulb in the lamp on the coffee table. However, we do need to be able to think about what we hear from the professionals and the politicians and the pundits. These “Three Ps” are supposed to be out there to help the rest of the world advance into a better future, but sometimes — and maybe more often than some of us would like — they claim ideas that really need to be shut down and sorted into File 13.

Forcing Physics 101 onto first-year college students has been the vehicle to drive science rigor into our daily brain activity. And while this should still be a important component to this effort, Physics 101 alone is proving to be inefficient in its results. Citizen Science is growing into a viable outlet for broad based scientific appreciation in informal education, and developing this approach in the classroom will be a critical advancement in academia’s responsibility to the future of scientific literacy in America.

Dynamic Patterns Research will be looking forward to watching Citizen Science in the Classroom explode through universities and high schools in the next few years. If you are involved in these sorts of efforts or are interested discussing how to make Citizen Science active at your academic institution, please contact Dynamic Patterns Research to see what fires we can start together.

Google Opens Virtual Science Fair

Google always needs to be hiring the next generation of the brightest and best science and technology students from around the world. Google also wants to influence technology-driven youngsters to love using their products and services.

So, what better way to help maintain their critical applicant pool and develop their future customers than to inspire that generation with a science competition that offers big, big rewards.

The 2011 Google Science Fair is an online global science competition now open for anyone age 13 to 18. Applicants — with permission from their parents or guardians — use online Google web services and guidance to develop, implement, and report on a science project. Winners will receive huge monetary awards or internships or amazing experiences at research centers around the world.

Sign up online and help your young Einstein develop their science skills with Google support. Teachers are also directed on how to encourage their students to participate and bring this exciting new opportunity to the classroom. The deadline for final project entry is April 4, 2011. If your family or classroom is participating, please let Dynamic Patterns Research know about your experience!

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

Last updated September 20, 2020