last updated 8/1/08
Fitnat Yildiz, a researcher at the University in California at Santa Cruz, is searching for stool samples from people infected with cholera. She would like to test whether wild strains behave the same way lab strains do — an analysis that can be difficult to conduct in areas of the world where cholera thrives. Normally she meets the scientists who can access such samples at conferences. But now she has a new way of finding them — an online database created by a new initiative called Scientists Without Borders (scientistswithoutborders.nyas.org). Using the database, Yildiz can search for people who have samples, or she can post an ad indicating her need.
The Scientists Without Borders database, hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences, is an attempt to address a pervasive problem: lack of collaboration. “People working in developing countries often don’t know what others have done or what they’re doing,” says Evelyn Strauss, the initiative’s executive director. When Strauss asked people in Africa what common mistakes they see aid organizations making, the response she heard over and over again was “reinvention of the wheel.” So she and her colleagues created a database that not only gives people a sense of what work is going on where, but that also allows people who have particular resources or skills to find the organizations and projects that need them.
In some ways, Scientists Without Borders is similar to other professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Participants create free profiles that describe their professional interests and background. Others can view those profiles and make contact through e-mail or phone.
In other ways, though, it’s completely different. Those wishing to join must be involved in a science-related activity — anything from medical sciences to seismology — and have an interest in helping people in the developing world. To ensure that participants meet those qualifications, only those who are invited can join. Would-be participants can secure an invitation through someone who is already a member, or they can request an invitation by answering a few questions on the Web site. The invitation requests allow Strauss and her colleagues to verify that people are who they say they are and that they are doing work or want to do work that fits the mission.
Joining Scientists Without Borders may be a little more difficult than joining Facebook, but the payoff is manifold. Members don’t have to be “friends” to see each other’s information and they have some assurance that the profiles represent real people with real expertise.
Scientists Without Borders is more than just a networking site. One of its goals is to match people who have resources with people who need them. Because while Craigslist connects a person needing a couch with a person selling a couch, it’s unlikely to help geophysicists at Istanbul Technical University in Turkey, for instance, find the seismometers and seismology instructors it is searching for.
So far, the database, which was launched May 12, boasts 140 organizations, 82 projects and 419 individuals, including a biochemist in Argentina, a geophysicist in Cuba and an astronomer in India. That’s not bad given that Strauss has relied mainly on word of mouth. “The whole thing is based on viral marketing,” she says. But recruitment is far from passive. She and her colleagues actively seek partners to help spread the word. “The database will be as useful as the extent to which it’s populated with quality information,” Strauss says.
Strauss looks forward to seeing membership expand, but she’s thinking beyond sheer numbers. “I’m interested in success stories,” she says, “examples of connections that wouldn’t have been made without the site.”
YouTube has made it easier than ever to quickly earn 15 minutes of worldwide fame, but sorting through the resulting millions of videos on the site for something worthwhile to watch can be exhausting. Enter a new Web site: www.SciVee.tv, where science-oriented Web surfers can bypass the lip sync videos and homemade diaries on chaotic sites like YouTube, and instead upload and watch videos made by scientists, for scientists and about scientists.
Cofounder Phil Bourne, a pharmacologist at the University of California at San Diego, says he got the idea while watching his students immersed in their computers, headphones on. “I’d look over their shoulders and half the time they’re watching YouTube,” Bourne says. “And I thought, why aren’t we doing science this way?”
But after uploading a few scientific videos to the well-trafficked site — and finding one posted just below a video featuring four male Austrian dancers — Bourne came up with another idea: a brand-new, science-only site, dubbed SciVee. The site was launched last fall with the help of a National Science Foundation cyberinfrastructure grant.
Originally, the plan was to just do “pubcasts,” short videos in which a scientist with a newly published, peer-reviewed paper would describe his or her research and possibly provide a few graphics to spice up the visuals. In part, Bourne says, the idea to do science pubcasts was prompted by his support for public-access research (the Public Library of Science is a partner in the site); he envisioned SciVee as a place to further disseminate scientific knowledge and attract more attention to scientific papers. Additionally, he says, a 10-minute briefing on a research paper could be a big help to scientists struggling to keep up with the thousands of papers that are published every week.
Once started, however, the site took on a life of its own. For one thing, Bourne says, scientists have been a bit shy about doing pubcasts, although as the site gains viewers and exposure, the idea is starting to catch on. Additionally, he says, “there was all this great video content at labs and institutions, and we wanted to post that and start a video section too.”
Therefore, in addition to the scientist-produced pubcasts describing a single research paper, the site now includes a large collection of more broadly focused videos, ranging from the relatively polished, lively short episodes of “Dr. Carlson’s Science Theater,” (science subjects explained by a high school science teacher), to informative briefs on broad scientific topics (such as plate tectonics) to conference-type Powerpoint presentations. The pubcasts are what make the site truly unique, however. One of the earliest pubcasts — an eight-minute discussion of the structural evolution of the protein kinase — has been accessed 75,000 times in the few months since the site launched, Bourne says. “It’s not a topic that you’d think would capture a lot of people’s interest,” he says. However, the medium itself is “quite vital,” he adds. “Video is an immersive environment.”
SciVee’s founders say that they have bigger ideas in mind than just providing a scientific alternative to YouTube, however. They want to create a new kind of community — one that helps level the playing field and gives more visibility to younger scientists and students. “Science is very hierarchical,” Bourne says. “But these videos bring the younger people in the lab, the ones really doing [a lot of] the work, to the front. They’re the ones more likely to view and to make the content.” The SciVee team has also created professional development videos for grad students, as well as brief informative videos such as “Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants.” And one future plan is to give glimpses into scientific labs, where prospective students (or curious viewers) can watch the lab’s principal investigator in action and learn about what the lab does. “It puts a very human face on science,” Bourne says.
Although the video content spans many fields of science, biologists still dominate SciVee.tv’s pubcasts, largely because of the site’s ties to the Public Library of Science, which now routinely invites authors of its accepted papers to create a pubcast. But Bourne and his team hope that as word gets out, scientists from all fields will want to participate. The only criteria for making a pubcast about a paper, he says, are that the research must be peer-reviewed and the scientist’s coauthors must be given a fair chance (about five days) to nix the idea.
Currently, the pubcasts are simple straightforward summaries of a paper, but the founders have plenty of ideas to spruce them up in the future. “If it’s an open-access publication, we could integrate the video with the publication — that’s the essence of the pubcast,” Bourne says. “As the person talks, the appropriate bits of the paper they’re talking about pop up, or are highlighted.” Other ideas include more interview-type pubcasts, an open review system offering comments and ratings and perhaps live webcast sessions with scientists taking questions.
With so many new ideas, the site is still in an experimental “beta” phase, and will be for some time, he says. The team is evaluating everything from the length and format of the videos to who is watching to figure out how to draw in new people, both to create content and to view it. "We're experimenting," Bourne says. "And it almost feels like we’re rediscovering public broadcasting, the early days of television — the medium’s just different.”
The site, part of EarthLab’s Life series that includes all kinds of home and wellness environmental tricks, includes “green” cooking tips — everything from green pasta dough (it has spinach in it) to actual environmental tips, such as using cold water whenever possible, buying organic food and wine, and not using bottled water, which Batali and his partners have done at several of their restaurants. The site also includes recipes and wine suggestions, which change once a month or so, and Batali’s favorite green links, such as www.slowfoodusa.org, an “eco-gastronomic” movement designed to educate people about how their food choices affect the rest of the world.
The “Food and Wine with Mario Batali” site itself could stand to be developed a bit more, and the EarthLab creators say it will be: As is, the site is rather sparse. However, it can be exceptionally useful for the links it offers for the environmentally minded foodie. For example, Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) is a nonprofit that sells heirloom garden seeds to help preserve the vast variety of foods from the past, and Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) helps people find farmers’ markets and other community-minded grocers in their area. Also be sure to check out Food & Wine magazine’s Farm to Table initiative (www.foodandwine.com/growforgood), a program designed to help people support local farms and sustainable agriculture.
Be sure to check out the remaining sections to find links to the data centers that conduct earth science research, as well as current information about how the data is collected. And if you want to find out about a career in the earth sciences, check out the local resources and careers links to find out what it takes to get a particular job, and to read Q&As with people already in the field.
In addition to seeing how soils help solve crimes, the site links to its parent, the Soil Science Education Web Site, which has a plethora of information on soils everything from introducing soil science basics to human impacts on soil and how it affects agriculture.
Under materials, for example, you can learn about metallurgy, mineralogy and elemental analysis, such as looking for heavy metals in a strand of human hair. In the chemistry section, you'll find paint pigment and building materials analysis, which are topics also frequently covered by the forensic geologist. This informative site also links to the FBI's Handbook of Forensic Services, which is used by forensic scientists and crime scene investigators around the country.
Click on volcanoes of the world to search by name, region or eruption date. If you search by region, you get a bright map lit up with little red triangles that indicate volcanic activity during the Holocene. (It vividly reveals the Pacific Ring of Fire.) If, for example, you wanted to learn about volcanoes in Indonesia, you click on the country to get a close-up view. Clicking on an individual red triangle provides information about that volcanos history, including its last known eruption and the damage it caused.
The other component of the programs site is volcanic activity reports. The monthly bulletin details monthly activity of active volcanoes, while the weekly activity reports, a cooperative project between the Smithsonian and the U.S. Geological Survey, detail current eruptive activity around the world.
Although this Web site may not make you a connoisseur
of wines, it will give you some idea of what to look for next time you
step into the wine shop, and it will give you some fascinating tidbits
to share with colleagues and friends over a glass of Chardonnay at the
next geology conference or happy hour.
The site has pictures and links to almost every place
it suggests you visit. Be aware, however, that some of the links are broken.
So, you may have to do a little additional work yourself, but learning
about these places will be well worth it.
Take The Core, for example, which Geotimes also reviewed and found to have scientific inaccuracies (Geotimes, October 2003). This Web site says the poor physics provide nonstop surprises, and it is rated the worst physics movie they've reviewed. The site also reviews Armageddon, an asteroid-impact movie from 1998, starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, where a group of misfits from an oil-rig have to save Earth from the impending doom of an asteroid impact. As the reviewers say, even if you disregard everything else scientifically wrong with the story and the crew manages to blow up the asteroid before it hits Earth, the gravitational pull from the asteroid pieces flying by Earth would disrupt the tides so much as to destroy most of life by way of tidal surge.
And as a final blow to many blockbuster hits, the site
debunks generic bad movie physics, from flashing bullets to exploding
windows and falling objects. So next time you're watching a movie and
wondering "can that actually happen?" you know one place
to go for answers.
In the section for teachers, educators receive the same
information as the students so they can walk them through the program,
plus additional background information, curriculum guides and suggested
questions and answers. The material covers five earth science topics,
including topography, earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics and sea-level
change. The content is solid, but be aware that the site runs relatively
In November, the Washington, D.C.-based society launched “Bytesize Science,” a weekly chemistry podcast aimed at children and teens. The three-minute episodes, available for download at feeds.feedburner.com/BytesizeScience or on iTunes, cover new research on everything from how water striders walk on water to how bacteria communicate. The stories come from ACS’s 36 peer-reviewed journals. “We try to choose stuff that kids can identify with that happens to have even a tangential relationship to science,” says Adam Dylewski, the show’s host. Hot topics include bad breath and belly flops.
Turning the technical jargon in journal articles into something kids — or even adults — can understand can be a challenge. “We never try to dumb it down,” Dylewski says. “But we may omit certain portions of an experiment that won’t hold the interest of kids.” Adding sound effects helps too. “Bytesize Science” is sprinkled with gurgles, screams, kissy noises and an occasional groan. Chemistry is “a lot easier to swallow when it’s wrapped in toilet sounds,” Dylewski says.
Only a hundred people have subscribed so far, but the show is slowly gathering steam. A few schools and libraries already recommend the podcast. “ACS is really interested in reaching young people of all ages, especially those who are thinking about what to do with their future,” Dylewski says. Kids who get hooked on science at a young age are more likely to pursue subjects like chemistry in high school and college. And more budding chemists translate into more members for ACS.
The strategy may already be working. We tested the podcast out on Aleksandra, a seventh-grader in Chicago, Ill. She listened to four episodes, including one about a researcher who made a plant’s root system glow by inserting a jellyfish gene. “They made me think that people can have very interesting jobs that people don’t know about,” she says. “Who would think to combine the genes of a jellyfish with a plant root?”
The site is separated into a teachers section and a students section. The students section is all activity-oriented, beginning with a game where kids put into chronological order various events of the last century, such as the invention of sliced bread and the Internet, and then does the same thing with Earths history, including when Archaeopteryx first wandered the planet and when Lucy (the African hominid) was around. It then moves forward through a variety of activities, which teachers can work alongside the students to finish.
One caveat: Students have to work through every single activity in order to move on to the next screen, so it can be time-consuming. But overall, the activity is designed to take less than an hour of class time. It can be done through the Internet or via CD-ROM, which is available from Berkeley.
The home page is structured like a scientific paper, so if you are interested in the introduction, methods and references, those details are available. But if you only want to look for specific figures, graphs and maps, click on “Temperature Reconstructions” to browse through the graphs. Or, from the sidebar, choose “Table of Figures” to scan through a comprehensive list. A few of the maps and graphs available are: Northern Hemisphere average temperature trends from 1400 to 2000; Global temperature patterns for two historically documented, very strong El Niño events (1791 and 1878); and the annual-mean global temperature pattern for 1816, the “year without a summer.”
You might consider avoiding the unnamed animation that
can be found under “Spatial Patterns” (part B) of “Temperature Reconstructions.”
It took more than ten minutes on a computer with a fast Internet connection
to download half of the images necessary to run the animation. Also, the
home page, or “Cover Page” of the paper, claims the Web site interactive—but
links don’t really make a Web site interactive … do they?
The recent increase in public awareness of human-induced climate change has triggered many people’s interest in learning more about their own impact on the environment, and the Internet offers many tools designed to help people calculate their carbon footprint. Curious about my own carbon footprint, I gathered together my electric and gas bills and checked out EarthLab (www.earthlab.com), one of the newest additions to the growing collection of Web sites offering online carbon calculators.
Like many online calculators, EarthLab can only really estimate my direct emissions — it’s just way too difficult to try to follow the trail of my indirect emissions — and measures it in terms of yearly tons of carbon dioxide output. The first bit of information EarthLab needs from me is my zip code. This will help the calculator determine carbon dioxide emissions from my energy use, as different regions use different sources of energy, such as coal or nuclear power, to generate electricity, which in turn vary in how much carbon dioxide they emit. EarthLab also asks me about my average monthly electric bills, and if applicable, my average monthly natural gas, oil or propane bills as a proxy for the actual amount of energy I consume. I also report at what temperature I keep my thermostat, if I use energy efficient lighting and what percentage, if any, of my energy comes from renewable sources. (If you don’t know, you can leave that question blank, or check with your electric company.)
After answering these questions about my use of energy at home, EarthLab asks me about my travel. First, it asks how many miles per year I drive, and the year, make and model of my car to estimate its fuel efficiency. It also asks me how I commute to work each day as well as how many airplane trips I take each year.
From all of these questions, EarthLab estimates that I directly contribute nearly six tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, which isn’t bad, apparently: The average yearly output of carbon dioxide for an American is nearly 15 tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to EarthLab. Perhaps my fuel efficient car and the fact that I take public transportation to work keeps my carbon dioxide emissions low.
The creators of EarthLab weren’t content with just showing people their carbon dioxide emissions, however. While creating EarthLab, “we thought there were some excellent calculators out there,” says Duane Dahl, a Web entrepreneur and creator of EarthLab. But “what was missing was the next step,” which is to help people to understand what they can do to reduce their footprints, Dahl says. For that, EarthLab allows you to save your results and update them over time, which lets you track your improvement, he says.
In addition, EarthLab also calculates your Earth Conservation Plan (ECP) score. Your ECP takes into account your carbon dioxide output as well as a variety of lifestyle behaviors — such as buying organic food — that may reduce or offset your carbon dioxide emissions. Once your carbon dioxide output and ECP scores are calculated, EarthLab offers a variety of suggestions, or pledges, for ways to reduce your scores. For example, I pledged to buy online music instead of CDs. This will lower my indirect emissions because I will not be contributing to the carbon dioxide that is emitted from trucks used to transport CDs or the plastic used to make the CDs. I also pledged to unplug my cell phone charger when I’m not using it and to let my dishes air dry instead of drying them in the dishwasher. Once I confirm that I’m indeed abiding by my pledges, my ECP score will drop. Also, as I implement my various pledges, I should see changes in my electric bill over time, which should lower my carbon dioxide output in the long run.
Dahl himself admits he has a long way to go to reduce his own impact on the environment, saying his wife has always been the “green” one in the family. But as he’s learned more about climate change while developing EarthLab, he’s realized that reducing greenhouse gases isn’t just about buying hybrid cars. “There are hundreds of things we can all do,” he says, which is what he hopes people will learn from a visit to EarthLab.
Visit EarthLab or any number of other carbon calculators to learn how much carbon dioxide you’re already putting into the environment and how to reduce your footprint. Although some are better than others, they are all fun and informative.
These and other tradeoffs and impacts of energy options are explored in a new chart created by researchers at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, D.C. The interactive chart illustrates the projected energy security and climate characteristics of different energy options, from raising fuel efficiency standards to increasing liquefied natural gas imports, in 2025. The point of the graph, says Jeff Logan, senior associate with WRI’s climate and energy program, is to create “a platform to discuss how we value the different energy options at our command.”
The site also offers resources for teachers to educate their students about climate change, with links to curricula for various age groups, games and activities for students, and school project ideas. The government also offers a climate change teachers kit that educators can request to receive.
USGS currently operates Landsat 5 and Landsat 7, one of which is featured on the sites home page at any given time. This page displays a continuously scrolling image viewer that shows the surface of the United States as seen from Landsat. Names of cities and towns appear on the image in blue text. Many U.S. locations look the same, however, so the page conveniently includes a U.S. map, on top of which the satellites current position and projected orbit are noted.
Unfortunately, the real-time images are only available when one of the satellites is within range of a specific USGS ground station. When the satellites are out of range, the image viewer replays the last data received and the word Replay will appear under the map, along with the time of the next expected real-time show.
The USGS Earth Resources Observation System (EROS) center
first launched the EarthNow! image viewer Nov. 2, 2006. Then, on Nov.
11, 2006, a viewing system was installed and launched at the Air and Space
Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Geoparks Network Web site will give you lots of
information about visiting each of these geoparks, but be aware that much
of the site is in French, still awaiting translation.
Google is once again illuminating the night sky. The company that brought us the interactive Web sites Google Moon and Google Mars now brings us a heavenly counterpart to its popular Google Earth: Google Sky. It’s included when you download the new Google Earth 4.2 (earth.google.com).
Google Sky is essentially a planetarium. To enter, first open Google Earth. From there, switch to Google Sky by clicking on its icon in the toolbar across the top of the screen. It will transport you to the portion of the sky that’s visible from wherever you were in Google Earth. This is a nice feature for those in the Northern Hemisphere who might never see the sky over the Southern Hemisphere and vice versa.
If you’re familiar with Google Earth, navigating Google Sky will be easy as the controls are identical. And like Google Earth, you can travel directly to different portions of the sky by entering names of stars, constellations, galaxies or other celestial bodies into the search box in the column on the left side of the screen.
You can also learn about the different objects you see during your explorations by turning on Google Sky’s different layering features, which are listed at the bottom of the column on the left side of the screen. Clicking on “Constellations” will label and connect the constellations. The visually pleasing “Hubble Showcase” will identify all of the objects in space photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. By clicking on one of these objects, a window pops up that includes a photograph, background information and a link to Hubble’s Web site.
The layers most beneficial to those new to astronomy are “Backyard Astronomy,” “User’s Guide to Galaxies” and “Life of a Star.” “Backyard Astronomy” labels all of the space objects that we can see from Earth with nothing more than our eyes or an amateur’s telescope. Like the Hubble feature, clicking on one of these objects brings up a window that provides basic identification information and, when available, an image and a link to a Wikipedia article.
“User’s Guide to Galaxies” labels different types of galaxies and “Life of a Star” indicates stars that represent different stages in a star’s lifecycle. By clicking on these objects, you’ll learn more about the specific galaxy or star, as well as general information about the type of galaxy or stage in a star’s life.
These layers are all informative, but using them all together crowds the sky with too many different names and symbols. Try using only a few at a time.
Although Google Sky isn’t the only digital planetarium out there (see below), it’s a fun, useful tool that offers something for everyone — whether you’re an astronomy novice or astrophysics professor.
Astronomy enthusiasts, take note. Oxford University researchers need your help classifying galaxies. Instead of using your trusty telescope, however, the only tool you’ll need is a computer with Internet access. And you might want a comfy chair, because once you start classifying galaxies and exploring never-before-seen images of our universe at the researchers’ new Web site Galaxy Zoo (www.galaxyzoo.org), you might not want to stop.
Galaxy Zoo allows anyone — whether you fancy yourself an amateur astronomer or have never even peered through a telescope — to participate in real scientific research. With the goal of having their Web site’s users categorize a million galaxies, the creators of Galaxy Zoo hope to learn more about the abundance and distribution of different galaxies in our universe and gain a better understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.
Galaxies are collections of stars, gas and dust held together by gravity, and they come in two main varieties: elliptical and spiral. From a distance, elliptical galaxies look like fuzzy balls of light that are brightest at their centers, becoming dimmer at their margins. Spiral galaxies, such as our Milky Way, look like hurricanes in space with a central mass of light from which long, cloudy, curved arms emanate.
During your first trip to the Galaxy Zoo, create a username and password before proceeding to the Galaxy Tutorial. There, novices learn the basics of galaxy classification: how to distinguish a spiral galaxy from an elliptical one, how to spot two merging galaxies and how to differentiate a clockwise spiral galaxy from a counterclockwise one. After practicing their classification skills, first-time users need to pass the tutorial’s quiz, correctly identifying at least eight out of 15 galaxies, before they can begin to participate in the project. After earning their credentials, participants are free to spend as much time as they like classifying galaxies.
On the Galaxy Analysis page, users will find an unclassified image with all of the classification options lined up next to it. After the user chooses a category, a new image will pop up automatically. The Web site keeps track of all of the galaxies a user classifies, so that he or she can review them again anytime. (It is also a safeguard for the Web site’s creators to be able to check the accuracy of classifications.) Galaxy Zoo’s online forum offers users a place to get help with especially tricky galaxies, share unusual or impressive images they’ve come across or just chat about anything related to astronomy.
In part, the idea for Galaxy Zoo was “born out of my own desperation because I used to do this all by myself,” says Kevin Schawinski, an Oxford graduate student in astrophysics and one of Galaxy Zoo’s creators. For his own research, Schawinski spent a week combing through images from space, classifying a total of 50,000 galaxies. Pleased with the results from this modest sample (the universe is thought to be home to billions of galaxies), he and one of his colleagues at Oxford, astrophysicist Chris Lintott, imagined what they might learn given the opportunity to study a much larger sample of galaxies that covered a larger portion of the universe, Schawinski says.
Access to such a large sample was not a problem. Schawinski and Lintott could use hundreds of thousands of publicly released images from the ongoing Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the world’s largest astronomical survey that is mapping more than a quarter of the sky using a telescope and digital camera based in Apache Point, N.M. Analyzing the images, however, would be a formidable task that would be too time-consuming for one person, or even a few people. And this is one area of astronomy where computers are of little help. “You can try to write an algorithm to try to classify galaxies, but [the computer] can be easily deceived,” Schawinski says.
Humans, in contrast, are “just fantastically good at this” sort of thing, Schawinski says, and “you don’t need to be an expert in astronomy.” Putting a catalog of images online for people to classify from the comfort of their own home seemed like the best way to attract volunteers. Schawinski and Lintott had already seen the concept work for University of California at Berkeley astronomers who created Stardust@home (stardustathome.ssl.berkeley.edu), a Web site where people search through magnified images of material collected by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft to identify individual grains of microscopic interstellar dust.
The gates of the Galaxy Zoo opened July 11, and the response was overwhelming, Schawinski says. In its first few weeks, Galaxy Zoo already had more than 70,000 registered users. These users have already classified a million galaxies. To ensure accuracy, Schawinski and Lintott would like each galaxy to be classified by multiple users, so there is still plenty of work left to do.
As of Aug. 1, Galaxy Zoo’s top classifier, 17-year-old Chris Stevens of Toronto, Canada, had classified more than 50,000 galaxies. “I have spent a fair bit of time classifying, because of all the free time I have since I don’t have a job,” Stevens says, estimating that he spends nearly four or five hours a day classifying galaxies. As a student, he enjoys the opportunity to participate in scientific research “instead of just reading about it,” he says. The project has also reinforced his desire to further his education in astrophysics. A fascination with astronomy also motivated Christopher E. Lorr, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, to take part in Galaxy Zoo. Lorr, who one day hopes to be an astronaut, has classified hundreds of galaxies. “I spend about 20 to 40 minutes every other day on the site,” he says. A nice benefit of classifying galaxies, he says, is “you get to see some amazing images that few people have ever seen.”
With the success of Galaxy Zoo, Schawinski says its infrastructure could be used in other astronomical projects, especially given the large number of people who seem willing to devote so much of their time to such projects. “I do this because I want to graduate and get a Ph.D.,” Schawinski says. “These people do it because they are fascinated by the universe.”
With Stellarium, a free, downloadable digital planetarium, you won’t just be seeing stars. You’ll see a star-filled sky in real time — just as it might look right outside your own window.
One of Stellarium’s most appealing twists on the classic planetarium is that its skies are photo-realistic, with twinkling stars and shooting stars, and the views are in real time. After opening the program on your computer, you see a view of the sky as it currently appears over a grassy landscape (whether daytime or nighttime), and it slowly rotates as time passes. The point of view is set to a default location (Paris), but users can enter different latitude and longitude coordinates, or choose a city from a number of pre-set cities to check on how the night sky is shaping up in London or Timbuktu. The time of day and even the speed of time are also subject to change, if you’re curious about which stars will be out tonight, or want to watch them sweep across the sky a bit more quickly. There are also several options for resetting the background landscape, including grassy fields, an ocean and the moon.
Be warned: Navigating your way around Stellarium can require a bit more than a sextant (a tool that sailors once used to help chart a course by the stars) or GPS. Several toolbars on the screen help you with some of the more sophisticated features, but basic zooming in and out on a particular star or planet requires knowing which keys control which function. The help button on the lower left toolbar contains a menu of these key functions.
Once you learn the control keys and have set your location, you can also begin to master the rest of the left-hand toolbar, which toggles some of Stellarium’s fun effects. Not only can you view the geometric connect-the-dots of constellations, but you can add an overlay of an artistic rendering of those constellations, find nebulae or superimpose projections of map grid lines on the sky. You can even add a little fog, for realism. The search function, also accessible from the left-hand toolbar, has an autofill feature that can be quite helpful with tricky star names. Once you type in the object you want to view, you are whirled around to it (sometimes those objects are not yet visible in the sky at the current time of day, so you may find yourself staring at the ground, or what’s below the horizon). You can also reset the “sky culture,” alternating the names of constellations between Greek, Inuit or Chinese, for example. On the lower right corner of the screen, another toolbar lets you change the speed of time, moving ahead into the future or backwards to the past to view how the stars were aligned on an important day.
Stellarium has a built-in catalog of more than 600,000 stars, and extra catalogs of more than 210 million stars are also available from the Web site as a separate download. In addition, the program includes a realistic Milky Way, the planets and their satellites and even other solar system objects such as the dwarf planet Ceres and asteroid Juno. (Eris was not included at the time of printing.)
To download Stellarium, visit www.stellarium.org (not to be confused with www.stellarium.com, an unrelated site that offers custom-built planetariums for museums). For more in-depth help with navigating, you can also download a User’s Guide (a PDF file) by following links on the site. Created by research engineer Fabien Chéreau and his team, the latest version of the program (released June 6) is available for Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. For computer-savvy users who want to tinker or add a favorite feature, the program uses OpenGL, an open source code that allows users to adapt it to add new objects, improve features or circumvent bugs, and is hosted at SourceForge, a software development site that hosts open source software projects.
As for the standard user, whether a kid working on a school project or an amateur astronomer wondering what that bright spot above the horizon is, the program is a fun, informative ride across the universe.
For more about OneGeology, read the original story posted online March 28, 2007, in the Geotimes Web Extra archive at: www.geotimes.org/WebextraArchive.html.
In case youre interested in learning more about the TV programs and projects we feature in the June 2005 issue of the magazine, we encourage you to check out the following Web sites.
last updated 8/1/08