Citizen science: the power of the crowd

Have you ever thought about being a scientist?  The growing movement of citizen science encourages public volunteers to contribute towards ‘the doing’ of scientific research, all without giving up the day job, undergoing extensive training or putting on a white coat. Topics and activities involved can vary widely, but typically ‘citizen scientists’ get involved in collecting, processing and/or interpreting data in some way, all under the direction of professional scientists or researchers.  For example, you could be asked to record observations about the natural environment, track human or animal behaviours, perform logging or mapping activities, or interpret images and patterns.

Galazy Zoo (a study to investigate the properties and histories of galaxies) is regarded as one of the most well-known and successful citizen science projects.  Launched in 2007, the project started life as a website that invited members of the public to sort images of galaxies into different categories (ellipticals, mergers and spirals).  Stunned by the speed and scale of the initial response (over 70,000 classifications received within 24 hours), the project has continued to attract an army of willing volunteers who perform ever more skilled tasks. Furthermore, they have developed a growing number of online resources to engage schools and the general public in astronomy.  Meanwhile, in Old Weather, volunteers delve into and transcribe the contents of historical logbooks from ships. Transcribing handwritten entries about weather readings taken at sea from thousands of logbooks into a digital (and analysable) format would clearly be a mammoth, and potentially impossible, task; yet, opening it up to the public has made it feasible.

So, citizen science can be a valuable way of both advancing scientific inquiry and engaging the public in science.  The general public can indulge their own interests whilst getting the feel-good factor of knowing they’ve contributed towards science. Basically, it’s a win-win situation.  Or is it?  Cynics may argue that some projects are little more than crowdsourcing, enabling scientists to achieve what would otherwise be too expensive, time consuming or intensive for researchers working alone.  Whilst it’s true that there may be pragmatic reasons for using citizen science approaches, projects can offer opportunities for genuine dialogue and collaboration between scientists and the public.  For example, members of the public with hay fever are now involved in designing #BritainBreathing, a citizen science project aimed at understanding more about seasonal allergies such as hay fever. So far, individuals have been involved in ‘paper prototyping’ workshops, to sketch out the design of a mobile phone app that will capture data about allergy-related symptoms such as sneezing, breathing and wheezing. Hence, the goal is to engage citizens in multiple roles whereby they can act as co-designers and collaborators, and not just as passive sensors.

More than just sensors: as part of #BritainBreathing, workshop attendees try out ‘paper prototyping’ to design a mobile phone app to capture data about hay fever symptoms.
More than just sensors: as part of #BritainBreathing, workshop attendees try out ‘paper prototyping’ to design a mobile phone app to capture data about hay fever symptoms.

Citizen science is not a new concept. Indeed, the first project has been traced back to 1833, when the astronomer Denison Olmsted invited the public to submit first-hand accounts of a spectacular meteor shower. Nonetheless, the term ‘citizen science’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary In 2014 and it is enjoying a ‘boom period’ at the moment, with an explosion of projects emerging.  Why the sudden popularity, you might ask?  Two factors stand out.  First, advances in information technology and the widespread availability of internet-enabled devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets) have enabled individuals to contribute data online in real-time, on the move, and with minimal effort.  Second, there is growing recognition that the public have a stake in science and that research should be more democratic, shaped by the interests and needs of the people.  Whilst the former is certainly useful in enabling projects, personally it is the latter that most excites me.  Citizens have more opportunities (and power) than ever to shape research to generate the knowledge and solutions we want for our futures.  So go on, indulge your inner scientist. Power to the people.

Guest post by: Lamiece Hassan

Lam headshot 2Lamiece is a health services researcher and public involvement specialist at The University of Manchester.  With a background in psychology, her research has explored topics such as health promotion, mental health in prisons and psychotropic medicines.  Her current work focuses on how we can use digital technologies and health data in trustworthy ways to empower patients and improve health.

Why do mangos taste like pines?

4818759374_29e1e0a716_qHaving grown up in a South Eastern European country, where fruits are abundant and make up probably about half of our diet during the summer, I’m used to many different kinds of fruit. However, a banana was probably the most exotic fruit that I came across until the age of about sixteen.  So, I was pretty intrigued when a couple of months ago a friend of mine bought a mango for us to try. We googled ‘how to eat a mango’, cut it into those cute hedgehogs like they do and tasted it. But, since neither of us had ever tried this fruit before, we didn’t realise that it wasn’t ripe, so the taste was far from nice. Except for the part just around the pit it was like chewing on pine needles. Since then I have learned how to pick more or less ripe mangos and developed quite a taste for them but, I still can’t help noticing a hint of pine in the flavour. Every time this makes me ask myself, what is it that makes two plants that are so different in terms of their habitat and their taxonomic position taste or smell similar?

To get to the bottom of this lets start by looking at how the sense of taste operates and how it is linked to the sense of smell. The flavour of our food is determined by these two senses
combined: try holding your nose whilst eating, you’ll find even familiar foods don’t taste right. Our tongue, the roof, sides and the back of our mouth are covered with taste buds – small receptors sensitive to so called flavorants. The receptors that allow us to detect and recognise odors are somewhat similar to these taste receptors. The two systems rely on chemoreception, which means that the receptors involved are able to capture the chemical compounds that make up a certain smell or taste and transform this information into a nerve impulses in the brain. Information regarding both taste and smell combine in your brain allowing you to enjoy a multi-sensory flavour experience.

4402795295_013a780bbb_zNow back to the mango/pine problem. I decided to start my investigation by finding out what chemicals produce the familiar smell of pine. A quick trip to the nearest pharmacy and a scan through the ingredients of pine-scented essential oils revealed that the main components were: α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, myrcene, camphene cadinene with very little variation from one brand to another. These compounds belong to a larger group known as terpenes, or more precisely monoterpenes, which are most commonly, but not exclusively, found in the resin of coniferous trees.

More than thirty different chemicals make up the flavour of mango and, surprisingly enough, α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, myrcene and camphene are among them. So, five out of six compounds that are found in pine needles are also found in mango pulp.

Due to their strong smell, high viscosity and antiseptic properties, terpenes act as a repellent that drives away herbivores and insects, thus protecting the plant from predation. The native land for mangos is South and South East Asia and, while there are several varieties of pines that grow in the same part of the world, these plants are only distantly related. Pines are gymnosperms – even though they produce seeds, they develop neither a flower nor a fruit. Mangos on the other hand are flowering plants. From an evolutionary point of view they are considered to be more advanced than gymnosperms since they have flowers that facilitate pollination and their seed is protected by a fruit. Flowering plants diverged from gymnosperms more that 200 million years ago. So how did such different plants develop such a similar defense mechanism?

The first thing that pops to mind is convergent evolution. It is very common in nature for different animals which occupy very different habitats and never even come near each other to develop similar adaptations when faced with a similar obstacle. A classic example is the structure of an eye of vertebrates (e.g. mammals) and cephalopods (e.g. octopus): both these groups have independently developed camera eyes astonishingly similar in their structure and way of functioning. Therefore, an efficient system is very likely to develop in parallel across unrelated species.

So, in the case of pines and mangos, terpenes provide not only a reliable defense against predators but also a mind-bending taste anomaly.

Guest Post by: Daria Chirita.

unnamedOriginally from Moldova, I am currently in my second year at university in France, Université Jean Monnet , St Etienne, studying Biology. My scientific interests include Molecular Biology and Genetics, in which I am hoping to pursue a Master’s degree. Other than that I enjoy learning and speaking foreign languages, knitting and cinema.

Don’t be left in the dark: eclipse facts.

A solar eclipse is one of the few astronomical events that actually gets people on mass to look up and think about what happens in the heavens. In this article, I want to indulge your astronomical interests with five interesting eclipse facts alongside a few of my own images of todays eclipse.

1. We can all agree that an eclipse is a pretty rare event, but you may not know that todays eclipse is especially unusual! This is because it occurred on the spring equinox and also reached the North Pole. This is the first time the North Pole has seen the sun for over 6 months; meaning that anyone, or anything, up at the Pole would have had to endure an extra few minutes of darkness because of the eclipse.

2. The movements of celestial objects are amazingly regular and cycles of movement can be predicted long in advance. Solar eclipses, like the one we saw today, are the result of ongoing cycles which repeat every 18 years, these are called Saros cycles. Many Saros cycles run simultaneously and todays eclipse was part of cycle #120. That means that, although the next eclipse in cycle #120 will not occur for another 18 years, similar eclipses will occur as part of other cycles. Therefore, there will be another total eclipse next year, this will be part of another Saros cycle (#130) and will be visible over Indonesia and the Pacific ocean. These cycles do not continue repeating forever actually, after about 1300 years, each Saros cycle stops, and a new one takes its place. Sadly, despite the wealth of Saros cycles running right now, we wont actually see another total eclipse in the UK until 2090.

3. Solar eclipses occur because of an amazing coincidence. The Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon but the Moon is about 400 times closer. Therefore both appear to have the same size in the sky (about 0.5 degrees of arc, which is approximately the size your thumb when you extend your arm). – As explained perfectly here by Father Ted Crilly.

4. Eventually we will no longer witness any Solar eclipses. This is because the Moon is slowly moving away from the Earth; but why? The Moon exerts a gravitational force on the Earth that ‘deforms’ the oceans. We notice this affect in the form of tides. Over time, this deformation of the oceans exerts a small gravitational force back on the Moon which accelerates it, pushing it away from the Earth whilst also slowing down the Earth’s rotation. Eventually the Moon will be too far from the Earth to fully cover the face of the Sun and the solar eclipse will become history.

5. Solar eclipses allowed physicists to test general relativity. When light travels close to a massive object (such as a galaxy) its huge gravity actually bends the light slightly towards it. When you calculate this bending affect, using old Newtonian physics and newer general relativity, you get different answers. What was needed was a test. In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington found that if you could measure the position of a star whose light past near the Sun then you could calculate the true light bending affect of the Sun’s gravity. He could only perform this measurement during a solar eclipse because most of the Sun’s glare is blocked out by the passing Moon, meaning that he could observe stars appearing near the Sun. He found that their positions, relative to other night sky objects, changed very slightly when they were influenced by the Sun’s light-bending gravity. Indeed, the amount of bending was found to agree with…you guessed it…general relativity.

Today’s eclipse viewed from Bury Lancashire.

Guest post by: Dr. Daniel Elijah

Manchester mathematicians give us all a chance to play the Imitation Game.

Let’s get the shameless plug out of the way first…

cumberbatch(1)On November 14th, `The Imitation Game’ – a biopic about the codebreaker, mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role – is released in cinemas.  To promote the film, StudioCanal together with the School of Mathematics at the University of Manchester are running a cryptography competition based on Alan Turing and set around Bletchley Park. Prizes include film posters signed by the principal cast, soundtracks, DVD bundles, day passes to Bletchley Park, etc.  The competition, which runs until November 28th, is open to everybody and can be found here.

Ok, advert over, so let’s talk about how and why we got involved in this…

Starting in 2012, the School of Mathematics at the University of Manchester has been running `The Alan Turing Cryptography Competition’.  Unlike the Imitation Game competition, this is open only to schoolchildren in Year 11 or below.  We’re aware that many children are turned off mathematics at a young age as they equate it with `doing hard sums’ and often don’t get to see that it’s actually about creative problem solving and logical thought.  The competition is a way of addressing this.  In fact, we deliberately make sure that the codes in the competition can be solved bare-handed (without recourse to computer programming or even GCSE-level mathematics) – provided that you can `think-outside-the-box’!

Each year the competition is themed either around some aspect of Turing’s life and work or the University, often incorporating perhaps less-well-known facts.  One example (and one which we rutherford(1)revisited for the Imitation Game competition) is that, in 1940, whilst Turing was working on cracking the Kreigsmarine Enigma machine at Bletchley Park, he was worried that if the Germans invaded the British Isles then sterling would become worthless.  He converted his life-savings into silver ingots and buried them somewhere near Bletchley. Unfortunately, he subsequently forget where – and they are (presumably) still there, likely buried under a housing estate in Milton Keynes!

We also incorporate some classical ideas or other stories relating to cryptography into the competition.  One code involved solving crosswords.  This was inspired by the fact that, in 1941, the Telegraph (at the behest of the War Office) organised a cryptic crossword competition; those who did well were recruited as codebreakers at Bletchley Park.  Another code mimicked a `numbers station’ (a numbers station is a shortwave radio broadcast often consisting solely of a computer-generated voice reading out sequences
of numbers; they are believed to be broadcasts from governments to spies in the field).

hieroglyphics(1)One reason I believe that the competition has been so successful is that cryptography is a great way to bring mathematics alive.  The abstract thought processes that are needed to crack a code are very reminiscent of the skills needed to be a professional mathematician. It’s also easy to relate cryptography to the real world: from codebreakers in the 1940s slaving away late at night to crack the Enigma machine so as to defend Britain, through Turing’s own tortured personal life, to how cryptography is used by all of us whenever we send secure information (credit card details, for example) across the internet.

The Imitation Game Cryptography Competition runs until Nov 28th.  Next year’s Alan Turing Cryptography Competition starts in Jan 2015,

Post by Dr. Charles Walkden

The Komodo dragon: how this foul-mouthed fiend feasts

“Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you art crunchy and good with ketchup.” ― Anon

A wild Komodo dragon

The fearsome Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the world’s largest living lizard, weighing in at an average of 150 lbs, and measuring 3 metres in length. It is native only to five of Indonesia’s islands, including its namesake, Komodo.

The Dragon is both a scavenger and an ambush predator; capable of lying in wait for hours at a time until prey, such as buffalo, come close enough for it to attack. Of course, not all kills are clean and quick. Animals injured in attacks by Komodo dragons can survive only to die days or weeks later from their wounds. Dragons have even been known to follow wounded prey for days until they die in order to enjoy an easy meal.

Interestingly, being the dominant predator in their habitat, it is likely that a member of the species will benefit from a delayed kill; even if it isn’t the individual that caused the death. This is very possibly a demonstration of ‘altruistic’ behaviour whereby an individual’s actions benefit the population as a whole.

But what exactly do these injured animals die from? Certainly Komodo dragon bites can be sufficiently deep to cause fatal blood loss but this is not always the case. Something else must come into play. The nature of that ‘something’ has caused a lot of controversy in recent years as different studies have produced contradictory results. There are currently two major theories, the oldest of which is coming under increasingly heavy fire from supporters of its more contemporary rival:

The Original Theory: Harmful bacteria live in the mouth of the Komodo dragon and infect wounds the dragon inflicts upon its prey

This particular theory originated in Walter Auffenberg‘s book, ‘The Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor’, published in 1981. In order to understand why Dragon bites sometimes resulted in delayed fatalities, Auffenberg swabbed the gums of captured Komodo dragons and identified four bacterial species from the samples. Three were described as being common causes of infections in animal bites.

Around 20 years later, Joel Montgomery’s group repeated this test, but on a much larger scale and with far more sophisticated screening techniques. They identified 58 species, with considerably more seen in wild Dragons than captive ones. The group also injected Dragon saliva directly into the abdomens of mice in the hope that they might recover a bacterial culprit from any mice that died from these simulated ‘bites’.

Some, however, consider their results contentious. All of the bacterial species the group found are pretty common in soil, plants or on animals’ skin. One species – Pasteurella multocida – present in some of the infected mice, was assumed to play an important role in prey infection, since the Dragons themselves were immune to it. Unfortunately, the species was only present in 5% of Dragons’ mouths and it turns out it isn’t actually capable of causing fatal septicaemia at the rate seen in Dragons’ prey.

Young Komodo Dragon feeding at a water buffalo corpse on Rinca

 It is now increasingly thought that the bacteria found in Komodo dragons’ mouths are simply the bacteria that were growing on/in the reptiles’ most recent meals. This may explain why captive Dragons, which are fed fresh meat, have fewer bacterial species in their mouths than their wild relatives, which will eat rotting carcasses. This all makes for a conspicuous lack of compelling evidence to support the idea that Dragons have evolved to use bacteria as a ‘weapon’.

The Modern Theory: The Komodo dragon uses venom to incapacitate its prey

This idea arose from a 2009 study by Bryan Fry’s group in Australia. They noticed that prey wounded by bites from Komodo dragons show common symptoms; namely being subdued, bleeding heavily and finally going into shock. Interestingly, these are the same symptoms caused by venom released by members of a related genus of lizards called the Helodermatids.

With this in mind, Fry’s group performed a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan of a preserved Dragon’s head and discovered a large venom gland in the lower jaw. The gland was divided into 6 compartments, with separate ducts leading from each compartment into the mouth, opening out between the Dragon’s serrated teeth.

The team discovered that the venom contained 2,000 proteins, around a third of which were known toxins in related reptile species. Indeed, the Dragon’s venom composition was similar to that of snakes, containing anticoagulants and toxins that lower blood pressure, causing persistent bleeding and weakness.

Interestingly, unlike other venomous lizards, Dragons do not have teeth specially adapted for chewing and working venom into their unlucky victims’ wounds. Instead, Fry suggests that the Dragons, who don’t have particularly strong bites, use their serrated teeth to “grip-and-rip” flesh, forming deep wounds into which venom could easily flow.

Continuing controversy:

The venom theory has more convincing evidence behind it than its predecessor and has become a far more widely accepted theory since its conception in 2009. It seems far more feasible that Dragons could have evolved effective venom, rather than evolving a co-dependent relationship with a variable bacterial population. The next steps in proving this theory may be to find evidence of Dragon venom in a prey animal, as well as physical proof that these venom glands actively work.

Despite all of this, however, the original theory still has a lot of supporters and has not yet been entirely ruled out. It is likely that the scientific community will remain split on the issue for some time to come. One thing we can all agree on, though, is that this fascinating beast has evolved a highly effective killing mechanism, which makes it both a powerful and intimidating predator.

Guest post by Ian Wilson

Learn a little more about Ian:

IanWilson“I’m currently about to enter my fourth and final year of a PhD studying the genetics of the human parasite Entamoeba histolytica. I’m based at the University of Liverpool, which is also where I completed my undergraduate degree in Microbiology. I’m really passionate about improving the public’s relationship with science and I aim to become a full-time science communicator when I finish my PhD so I can really get stuck in!”

You can follow Ian on twitter @Science_Gremlin and for more top-notch science writing, including an answer to the question: Just how scientifically possible are Gremlins?: Visit his blog: