People Powered Science II

At the beginning of the project I posted some thoughts on people powered science and how history might hold some lessons for contemporary citizen science practice. Since then I’ve been working some more on the people part of people powered science. I’ve been looking through the Zooniverse’s forums (each of the more than 100 projects hosted on the platform has a space for communication) and talking to some scientists. One interesting feature has started to emerge.

A big part of science is imagination. In a fascinating and slightly bizarre interview – ‘Einstein loves children’ / ‘”Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits.'” – with George Viereck published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, Albert Einstein claimed imagination was the most important part of his work:

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world.

There are several examples of imagination pushing Zooniverse projects into new areas – Hanny’s Voorwerp and the Green Peas are two of the most celebrated. The Peas and the Voorwerp are both objects that were spotted by people with less specialist knowledge (i.e. they weren’t trained as scientists) but the imagination to see that something interesting was happening. You can read about the Voorwerp in a comic produced by the Zooniverse and the Citizen Science Alliance. It opens with the lines, ‘Science is driven by that most basic of human impulses, curiosity’. In the case of the Peas, at first the non-scientists had to convince the scientists that the Peas were worth looking at (they turn out to be significant star-formation clusters). So one could take the Voorwerp and the Peas to be cases of Einstein’s imagination over knowledge thesis.

The ‘Science‘ section of the Disk Detectives project describes this type of discovery, again, in terms of curiosity:

computer programs can only detect what we tell them to measure. But you can do much more than that. With a large all-sky data set and your curiosity, the possibilities for unexpected discoveries are vast.

This is interesting because scientists often see themselves as curiosity and imagination-driven beasts, following Einstein’s characterization. Celebrating the Voorwerp and the Peas as curiosity and imagination driven discoveries could suggest they represent a purer form of scientific endeavor, one unsullied by the performance and publishing demands that some feel have warped academic careers and the research process.

This leads to two questions. If everybody on a project is working from the same imagination driven curiosity, why are some of them called scientists but others not? And if people report that what motivates them towards participating in the Zooniverse is a ‘a desire to contribute to scientific research‘, that is ‘real academic research‘, is this what they take the real to signify: a curiosity and imagination-driven practice?

The first question might seem less relevant but the naming of names certainly matters. The conceptual resources we use to characterize the world, shape our perceptions of it as much as representing our own values. Donna Harraway is famous for this type of thinking. As she puts it in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges… It matters what worlds world worlds.’ Unsurprisingly her call for use of ‘Chthulucene’, to replace the Anthropocene, Capitalocene and so on, of recent appearance, made the Great Old One (guest blogging at, ‘skeptical that she did not mean to summon me by speaking my name, extra-H or no’. The choice to call the people without PhDs something different, even to call them volunteers, as the practice is on the Zooniverse, and not scientists, suggests that knowledge and training, on some level, despite what Einstein says, do make a difference.


That brings us to the second question, what is real research? What characteristics does it have? As with all ‘How Science Works?’ type questions, things get complicated pretty quickly. Opinion will vary and change over time. While many scientists, and those who think about what a scientist is and does, might be mostly Einstein (see: Popper), they also think at the same time in Kuhnian terms about themselves as technician-like ‘problem solvers’. One can also be a little bit Lakatos, somewhat Feyerabend, French on the big picture and Ladyman on the details.

Citizen science, because it is a young science, still very much in a process of definition, brings these questions to the fore and makes them not just descriptive, but also normative. Historians and philosophers of science have been thinking about what science has been and does for some time, but for citizen science practitioners, as they design projects and form practices, these are also a series of questions about what their science ‘should’ be.

This is something sociologists and the broad church of social studies of science can help with, despite the sometimes acrimonious relations between science and science studies. Given recent events, (can I just say Trump!?) and the growing crisis in science communication, it would seem to be the right time to have this big conversation on science. I would argue that armed with the lessons of history and philosophy of science, and science studies, citizen science in its imminence might be a suitable vehicle for that conversation.

We could also look at this issue of imagination from another direction, by thinking about the first part of that Einstein quote, and what role art plays in science. I’m interested in the playful and creative things people do around citizen science and how this sort of activity functions as part of the research process. How seriously should we take Einstein about the importance of enough artistry? The early evidence from the Zooniverse suggests very.


‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.’ Thanks to

You can write your name in the stars, using images that were presented for classification in Galaxy Zoo, thanks to Steven Bamford. On another project, Science Gossip, one of the forum moderators, Jules, has made an alphabet of nineteenth-century initials. The images of people who volunteer make up the stunning visual identity of the Orchid Observers project (and the use of copyright on many of these images makes clear they are works of art). What do these artistic expressions mean in terms of real research? Are they epiphenomena to the core process? Or will they, like epigenetics, turn out to be a surrounding structure, in this case a creative architecture, that makes the whole enterprise tick? There’s some interesting historical precedent on this question.


Initials. Credit: Jules @ScienceGossip

Most people know two things about Alexander Fleming, that he discovered penicillin and that he was messy. Fleming didn’t wash his petri dishes and one day, looking down upon his mess, wham. Penicillin. This might not be the whole of the truth. Or more importantly, the interesting part. Fleming was an amateur artist and member of the Chelsea Arts Club, and, ‘painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria‘. The paintings are far from beautiful, but they raise a host of questions about the role that this side of Fleming played in his penicillin moment.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you there are good reasons for thinking deeply about imagination, curiosity and art in citizen science and how they relate to research.  Interestingly this is where the scientists I’ve spoken to get most excited. They really care about art and the art of citizen science especially. I’ll be reporting back with some of their thoughts on this shortly.

A Lamp in One Hand and a Measuring Tape in the Other

Guest blogger and ConSciCom intern Lea Beiermann recalls the highlights of her four-month stay at the University of Leicester.

When I arrived in Leicester in early September I only had a vague idea of what I would be doing during the upcoming months. I had read a number of publications by ConSciCom researchers over the summer (for example Gowan Dawson’s new book) and had a rough idea of what the project was about – but I did not know yet what I would be able to contribute. Shortly after I arrived, it was agreed that I would mainly assist Geoff Belknap in his research on illustrations in nineteenth-century science periodicals.

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Call of the Wild, MIT 2016

Some more materials have emerged from the ‘Call of the Wild’ symposium that several ConSciCom members participated in. First is a conference report, prepared by Alison Laurence, PhD candidate in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. It’s wonderfully detailed and contains notes on the symposium’s several themed panels: ‘What is Wild?’, ‘Field, Museum and Armchair’, ‘Micro Scale’, ‘Invasion/Impurity’, ‘Stalking the Wild’ and ‘Wildness and Domestication’ as well as a digest of participants comments during and discussions after each paper.

Second is an interview with symposium convener Harriet Ritvo which draws out some of these themes alongside some beautiful images (we really like the aerial photo of New York’s Central Park). Here’s a snippet from the interview:

“Wild” is a very powerful category now, as it has been for many centuries. The emotional or ethical response to this power, however, has recently altered. That is to say, for most of history, to call something “wild” was to express disapproval, but the term has become sufficiently positive for the Shaw’s supermarket chain to brand its “organic” product line as “Wild Harvest,” described on its website as “created, flavored, and colored by nature.” As wildness has come to seem less threatening and more threatened, people have come to like it better.

If you haven’t already heard it, this is the symposium where the audio we posted last month of Berris Charnley speaking about rogues and wildness, was recorded. We’ll be continuing this discussion in 2017, with another event being organised for some point in the summer.

Young Scientists Journal Conference 2016

We had a fantastic time hosting the Young Scientists Journal Conference yesterday, so we put together the tweets from the day as an album. Press play to flick through the tweets or follow the storify link to see the full story.


The Young Scientists Journal is written and edited exclusively by 12-20 year olds, and in 2016 reached its tenth anniversary year. It publishes peer reviewed research papers and articles on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in print and online.

The third annual conference at St Anne’s College brought together students, science teachers scientists and academics for an exciting day of talks, workshops, discussions and sharing of ideas. Students also had the opportunity to take part in a poster competition to showcase their own research projects.

The Constructing Scientific Communities project was represented by Professor Sally Shuttleworth at the first welcome session, and Professor Chris Lintott gave one of the keynote talks on The Universe Through A Million Eyes. Grant Miller from Zooniverse ran one of the day’s workshops on the subject of People-Powered Research.

For full details of the day’s events and photographs of the conference, a report is available on the Young Scientists Journal website.

Rogues and Wild Relatives: Purity and wildness in early-20th Century Genetics

Following up on last year’s post about academic presentations and going into rooms and saying things, here’s a recording of some things I said in a room.

The talk is about genetics, plant breeding and different types of expertise pertaining to the domestication and breeding of plant varieties. The occasion was a small conference held at MIT earlier this year on Wildness. (Coincidentally, a new collection of the writings of one of the central characters in the story of Wildness has just been published, Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture and Society, and is reviewed nicely in the London Review of Books – subscription). If you’re interested, here’s the abstract for the paper:

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Sydney Padua: Imaginary Engines- Lovelace, Babbage, and the Analytical Engine

One of the highlights of an amazing seminar series last term was a paper not from one of the world’s leading historians (though we did have two of those) but from animator and graphic artist, Sydney Padua. Seen the new animated version of The Jungle Book? Then you’ve seen some of Padua’s work. So what was a world famous animator at the top of her game doing at St Anne’s College, appearing in the Nineteenth Century Science and Literature Seminar Series? Talking about a body of work that had begun as a pet project and ended with a detailed contribution to the history and historiography of Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine, and a fantastic graphic novel, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage:

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Going into rooms and saying things: Academic presentations

Giving presentations is a vital part of academic life. Yet the functioning of the academic presentation is little explored. A presentation can mark the beginning or the end of a piece of research and any level of polished analysis between. Sometimes presentations function as an extended job interview and at other times as group therapy. They can be singular or they can flock together in a workshop or conference. They can be ephemeral, living on only in spiral bound notes, or they can ripple, as live blogging and tweeting spark new conversations reverberating beyond the presentation and questions happening in the room.

Since joining the CONSCICOM project I’ve given several presentations but March was a particularly busy month, with three presentations in just three weeks. Now my head has stopped spinning, I thought it would be worth capturing some of that activity.

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