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The world of science has been transformed. Where once astronomers sat at the controls of giant telescopes in remote locations, praying for clear skies, now they have no need to budge from their desks, as data arrives in their inbox. And what they receive is overwhelming; projects now being built provide more data in a few nights than in the whole of humanities' history of observing the Universe. It's not just astronomy either – dealing with this deluge of data is the major challenge for scientists at CERN, and for biologists who use automated cameras to spy on animals in their natural habitats. Artificial intelligence is one part of the solution – but will it spell the end of human involvement in scientific discovery?
No, argues Chris Lintott. We humans still have unique capabilities to bring to bear – our curiosity, our capacity for wonder, and, most importantly, our capacity for surprise. It seems that humans and computers working together do better than computers can on their own. But with so much scientific data, you need a lot of scientists – a crowd, in fact. Lintott found such a crowd in the Zooniverse, the web-based project that allows hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers to contribute to science.
In The Crowd & the Cosmos, Lintott describes the exciting discoveries that people all over the world have made, from galaxies to pulsars, exoplanets to moons, and from penguin behaviour to old ship's logs. This approach builds on a long history of so-called 'citizen science', given new power by fast internet and distributed data. Discovery is no longer the remit only of scientists in specialist labs or academics in ivory towers. It's something we can all take part in. As Lintott shows, it's a wonderful way to engage with science, yielding new insights daily. You, too, can help explore the Universe in your lunch hour.
1: Finding planets
2: How science is done
3: The crowd and the cosmos
4: No new ideas
5: Into the Zooniverse
6: Too many penguins
7: Things that go bang in the night
9: Humans versus computers
Chris Lintott is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford, where he is also a research fellow at New College. As Principal Investigator of the Zooniverse, he leads a team who run the world's most successful citizen science projects, allowing more than a million people to discover planets, transcribe ancient papyri, or explore the Serengeti. For this work he has received awards from the Royal Society, American Astronomical Society and Institute of Physics amongst others. A passionate advocate of the public understanding of science, he is best known as co-presenter of the BBC's long running Sky at Night program and the author, with Queen guitarist Brian May and Sir Patrick Moore of two books (Bang!: The Complete History of the Universe (Carlton Books, 2007) and The Cosmic Tourist (Carlton Books, 2012)), both available in more than 13 languages.
"The Crowd & the Cosmos is a superbly written insight into the unique and powerful contribution enthusiasts from all walks of life can make to scientific knowledge. It is also a fascinating and much-needed description of how we acquire reliable knowledge about nature, from the search for planets and perhaps civilizations around distant stars to observations of penguins in the Antarctic and what they can teach us about the impact we are having on our own world."
– Professor Brian Cox
"Chris Lintott is a modest genius. He has quietly revolutionised modern astronomy (and a few other branches of science) by using digital platforms to involve the public. Anyone who wants to contribute some of their spare time is invited, through Chris's Zooniverse projects, to participate in real science. Literally millions have taken up the invitation. This is a beautifully readable book, which tells the story of the Zooniverse and much more. Chris is delightfully anecdotal, inclusive and witty, yet never shirks in-depth explanations of the cutting-edge science he's delivering to us, almost before we realise it – this is the New Age of Science for All!"
– Brian May
"The Crowd and the Cosmos gives an authentic flavour of astronomical research and its appeal. But it's especially significant because it offers a first-hand account of how Chris Lintott conceived and led the 'Zooniverse' project, thereby enabling huge numbers to participate in significant research, and even make important discoveries. His pioneering initiative has spawned similar programmes in naval history, conservation and other subjects – triggering a benign social revolution in scholarship and education."
– Martin Rees
"With a light-handed touch, a passion that shines through, and fun footnotes to make the reader chuckle, the author uncovers the bafflingly-infinite properties of the universe and people and penguins too."
– OX Magazine