In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, we met “Steve” and learned how this strange and unexpected aurora-like phenomenon ended up with such a friendly, normal-sounding name. But there’s another important aspect of Steve’s story that I didn’t really touch on: the role of citizen scientists.
Toward the end of this paper from Science Advances, the same paper which linked Steve to another aurora-related phenomenon known as S.A.I.D., I found a paragraph that I feel is interesting enough and important enough to quote in full:
STEVE has highlighted the importance of citizen science. Although independently observed previously by auroral photographers both amateur and professional, citizen science has proven to be a bridge between amateur observers and traditional aurora scientists. This bridge has facilitated the advancement of our understanding of both the night sky and magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling. We emphasize that this collaboration with the citizen scientists was not simply through crowdsourcing and image analysis of a large data set. Citizen scientists discovered a new category of auroral observation by synthesizing complex information and asked the scientific community for input on these observations. This example can help change the nature of scientific engagement between the scientific community and citizen scientists and move communication from one way to two way, with curiosity transitioning to participation and finally to stewardship.
Citizen science is often portrayed as something new, something that’s only become possible thanks to computers, the Internet, and technology in general. And I think that’s fair. The mystery of Steve might not have been investigated as thoroughly as it has been, or it might not have been investigated at all, if not for Facebook.
For most of the 20th and early 21st Centuries, cutting edge science has required a lot of extremely powerful, extremely sensitive, and extremely expensive equipment. If modern science is seen as inaccessible to the average person, that might be in part because the average person could not afford to perform science him or herself.
But it wasn’t always so. Most of the great scientists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries were essentially hobbyists, people who indulged their curiosity using the kind of tools they either bought off the shelf or built with their own hands.
So in a way, I think of citizen science as science returning to its roots, with ordinary men and women contributing once more to the important discoveries of our time (like the discovery of Steve).