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Mr. Larry Roark

Larry Roark

September 27, 2012

Citizen scientists search for alien life Amateur astronomy buffs find common goal in just a few clicks Larry Roark, 61, of Tampa, Fla., uses an old PC and a little of his spare time to volunteer for the SETI project. (Michael C. Weimar, For the Chicago Tribune / April 24, 2012)

By Cynthia Dizikes, Chicago Tribune reporter April 26, 2012

Every day, Larry Roark logs on to his 2002 Dell desktop computer in Tampa, Fla., and searches the cosmos for aliens. A retired insurance analyst, Roark spends hours online poring over pictures of radio waves taken from space, scouting for any unusual ripples or blips that could be Earth's first interstellar "how do you do." Since the Adler Planetarium's Search for Extraterrestrial Life website, SETILive.org, launched earlier this year, an eclectic army of some 56,000 amateur astronomy buffs have joined in the hunt from personal computers around the world. In Toronto, an IT technician volunteers during his lunch break. In Washington, D.C., an art director hops online at night after putting his two children to bed. And in Cordoba, Argentina, a 28-year-old self-described "nerd boy" and Star Trek enthusiast has been searching around the clock since he discovered the website last week. "We don't really know each other," Roark, 61, said by phone this month. "But we have a common passion, which is looking for E.T."

The website, which allows users to sift through black-and-white images of radio signals captured by telescopes, is just the latest in a growing array of online citizen projects helping scientists tackle sophisticated inquiries. Any person with a computer, an Internet connection and — perhaps most importantly — the dedication, can now track climate change through old ship logs, categorize the sounds of killer whales or identify ancient Greek characters on photos of crumbling papyri. Although the goals are diverse, most of the efforts rely on the same principle: Human beings are better than computers at recognizing loose patterns and subtle visual oddities, which may ultimately be key to understanding the natural world, or in the case of SETI, the universe. "It is really hard to write a computer program that looks for generally interesting stuff," said Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist who helps lead Adler's citizen science program. "Asking, 'Does that look weird?' is a very human question and that is why we decided that people could be useful."

Lintott's ordinary-people approach to resolving complex science problems began at the University of Oxford in 2007 while he was researching how galaxies form. A friend, Kevin Schawinski, had taken on an enormous challenge for his graduate studies: Identify the shape of a million galaxies to better understand how the universe was formed. Schawinski looked at about 50,000 pictures of those star systems but thought there had to be a better way. "I was doing it eight or 10 hours a day for weeks," said Schawinski, now an Einstein Fellow in astrophysics at Yale. "But there was a point where I realized you can't have one person doing this, or even a small group." Over a pint of beer at a local pub, Schawinski and Lintott came up with a solution: Galaxy Zoo, a website where they could post the galaxy images online and ask regular people to help identify the shapes. Within days of its launch, tens of thousands of people from around the world flooded the site. Work that had taken Schawinski weeks to complete suddenly took mere hours. "Clearly, there was huge excitement," Schawinski said. "So we had scientists go talk to the users and ask, 'What is your motivation? Why do you do this?'"

To their surprise, it was not that most people found it fun or the images pretty. They liked contributing to real research. Lintott and his team marshaled that enthusiasm into a suite of citizen science projects eventually dubbed the "Zooniverse." A couple of years later, Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI research at the SETI Institute, won $100,000 from TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) to "empower earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company." Tarter, who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in the 1997 movie "Contact," has long led the pursuit of extraterrestrial intelligence, though it has often felt like a Sisyphean mission. Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

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