Save the World in Your Spare Time

I’ve just finished reading through a review copy of Chandra Clarke’s Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen Science and have to say that this little eBook is something everyone should own. It’s an electronic format-only book, and not everyone I know has an eReader, but those who do are getting a copy for Christmas (sorry if that’s a spoiler for any of my dearer readers).

Clarke, who also writes the blog Citizen Science Center, has a clear, lively prose voice—and she knows her subject. What she does in this book and on her blog is gather and share information on scientific projects that can genuinely use the help of ordinary non-scientists (of course, scientists can participate too).

The best-known citizen science project is probably SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which offers a downloadable program that will enable your computer to spend time analyzing radio astronomy data to try to detect life on other planets. Similar analysis programs do everything from running docking simulations on malaria proteins in order to help with drug development to searching for neutron stars.

But maybe you want to participate a bit more actively instead of letting your computer do all the work in its down time. Projects at this level often involve analyzing photos, films, or sound: humans, for now at least, are still more discerning viewers/listeners than are computers. You can look for evidence of cancer in tumor samples, try your hand at folding RNA, or listen to a live-feed underwater microphone and note whale songs. I’m planning to help classify sea floor ground cover and species on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s HabCam (or Habitat Camera).

Think you don’t have time to participate in citizen science? Think again! Clarke points out that “Americans (just Americans!) watch more than 200 billion hours of television every year. If that statistic doesn’t boggle your mind, consider the online game World of Warcraft: one source suggests its 11 million players have spent as much as 5.9 million years on it… or as much time as humanity has spent evolving as a species.” Your ten or twenty minutes may not seem like much, but when enough people participate they can accomplish wonderful things.

You can buy this eBook for only $2.99. You can visit Clarke’s web site for free. Find a project that suits your interests and, yes, save the world in your spare time.

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