Help researchers monitor and understand light pollution with a simple smartphone app
Guest post by Christopher Kyba
How many stars can you see when you look up at the night sky? The answer depends a bit on your vision and a lot on where you live. The bright sky over cities reduces the contrast between the stars and the spaces between them, making them difficult or impossible to see. It’s similar to how the noise from traffic makes it hard to hear singing birds.
This phenomenon is known as light pollution and is of concern for both ecological and human health reasons. For example, the croaking of frogs and toads is a nighttime breeding ritual and artificial right disrupts this activity, reducing populations. Similarly, birds that migrate or hunt at night can have their navigation severely affected by artificial light.
One way to find out the brightness of the sky is by measuring how bright the stars are. If you tell me the faintest star that you can see, I can tell you the sky brightness. So if your city is installing new LED streetlights, you can use the stars to track whether the sky gets darker or brighter!
The most accurate way to measure the artificial night sky brightness is with expensive camera equipment, like the ones the US National Parks Service (NPS) developed for measuring skyglow in National Parks. But the NPS can’t be everywhere at once, and they also only operate inside the US.
To get around this, projects like ‘Globe at Night’ and ‘How many stars’ asked citizen scientists to rate how bright skyglow is by choosing the map that best matches what their night sky looks like. A few years ago, we analyzed this data to test how accurate these observations are. We found that while the uncertainty on each individual observation is large, the average of many hundreds of observations is an extremely stable indicator of night sky brightness. This proved that citizen science observations could be used to track how skyglow is changing, although probably only on regional and global scales.
Upon seeing these results we wondered, could we somehow empower individuals to accurately track how skyglow changes at the local level? This data could prove to be extremely useful and expand our knowledge of how humans are altering the world around us.
After some thought, we decided the best way to do that would be to replace skyglow maps with a set of direct questions about specific stars: “Can you see Arcturus? Yes? Then what about Polaris?” This eventually led us to develop the Loss of the Night smartphone app with funding from the German Ministry for Education and Research.
The Loss of the Night app works by directing your vision to a certain part of the sky. Once you are correctly oriented, you look away from the screen and into the sky, and check if you can see the suggested star with your own eyes. After you make your report, the app suggests a new star, and this continues until you have searched for at least 8 stars.
The app turned three years old on April 22nd, and we’ve improved how it works, partly based on participant feedback. We’ve also recently developed a way for citizen scientists to access and analyze their own data. The image below shows the results from one set of observations.
The higher up the stars appear on the magnitude scale, the fainter they are. The display also notes whether the user marked stars as visible or not. A white line shows the “naked eye limiting magnitude”, which tells us how bright the faintest star that this observer could see is. The number of visible stars increases exponentially with the limiting magnitude, and in this case observer could see about 200 stars.
Since the app was first released, 14,271 different devices have sent us data. Much of it is from people just trying out the app in daytime, or using it in conditions that we can’t analyze, like when the moon is up. But so far participants have made close to 4,000 good observations, where at least 8 stars were observed, the data is self-consistent, and there was no twilight, moonlight, or clouds.
We are currently heading towards new moon, so if you’d like to try the app out, you have until about May 7 to do so. The stars change over the course of the year, so if you like the app, help us do some great citizen science by observing your night sky a few times every year.
Christopher Kyba is the creator of the Loss of the Night app. He researches light pollution at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany. Follow him on twitter @skyglowberlin
by Russ Campbell
Orchids have long held an enigmatic mystique. Perhaps their origins as tropical and subtropical plants found in exotic locales and an early lack of understanding of how they survive have contributed to their status. By the 19th century, orchids were a status of the British well-to-do.
The famed voyager and scientist Charles Darwin was also obsessed with orchids. After the publication of his famous book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin devoted much of his time to exploring the connecting between the orchid and its ecosystem.
Now, you don’t need to be Charles Darwin to help contribute to the science of orchids and their environment. The Orchid Observers, a citizen science project based out of Natural History Museum in London, is asking plant aficionados armed with their smart phones and a careful tread to provide data back to the museum so researchers can study the impact of climate change on flowering time of UK’s orchids.
I interviewed Lucy Robinson, the citizen science programme manager at the museum, by email to elaborate on The Orchid Observers. Read More
by Egle Marija Ramanauskaite
Earlier this year, we introduced you to WeCureALZ – a groundbreaking new project that for the first time is set to use the power of citizen science to conduct Alzheimer’s research. Enabled by the support of the BrightFocus Foundation, the team is already preparing for the alpha testing of our first online activity – a game that will allow everyone to search for stalled capillaries in the brains of Alzheimer’s-affected mice.
With a beta launch planned later this year, we thought it was about time we tell you the key part of the story – the science behind WeCureALZ, and what is it that you – citizen scientists – will be helping researchers do! Read More
What better way to kick of a month long celebration of citizen science than at the USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF), probably the largest science festival in the country?
And kick it off we did! For two days, the SciStarter booth at USASEF featured citizen science projects that people of all ages could learn about and participate in, and several of its major partners including Discover Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, the Crowd and the Cloud and of course, the Science Cheerleaders.
Day 1 featured a live 1-hour Hangout on Air organized by Crowd & Cloud, an upcoming 4-part public television series about citizen science and how mobile technology is changing the way participatory research is conducted. Read More
If you haven’t heard already, Citizen Science Day is fast approaching!! April 16 is the big day and events celebrating CitSci run all the way through May 21. From being at science festivals to nationwide bioblitzes, there’s something for everyone.
To get you all pumped up we’re sharing this amazing video made by folks from The Crowd and the Cloud, an upcoming “4-part public television series exploring the new frontier of citizen science in the age of mobile technology.” They are also going to be live streaming a Google Hangout session from the 4th Annual USA Science and Engineering Festival which will include projects featured at the SciStarter booth. Watch this space for more details !!
Author’s Note: This story describing the research of Dr. Jacob Sherson and the origin of the citizen science game Quantum Moves was first published in August 2014. Today the team behind Quantum Moves published its findings in the journal Nature (paywall). In an interview to Nature News, Jacob Sherson, who led the creation of the game said that he was “completely amazed by the results” that citizen scientists were able to accomplish. This article talks about an earlier version of the game, and new Mac and PC editions have since been made available.
“Every story has its own beginning”, writes Jacob Sherson, an associate professor of Physics at Aarhus University (AU) in Denmark on his blog. The story of his citizen science project, Quantum Moves, began at the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Munich where he was a post-doctoral. Along with his colleagues, he was working on an experimental system that could manipulate individual atoms, a fundamental requirement of creating a quantum computer.
I’m no physicist myself and it took me a while to even begin to understand how a quantum computer might work. So bear with me here as I attempt to describe it to you. The guts of any computer are really tiny transistors that can be in one of two states; 0 or 1. Thus all information that passes through a computer is represented by a string of ‘bits’ which are either 0s or 1s. One way by which computing power has increased exponentially over the years is by manufacturing smaller and smaller transistors. This allows us to pack more of them within a given space hence increasing the ability of the computer to process larger amounts of information at once. But as you can see, there exists an inherent size limitation here. We will soon reach a point where the smallest transistor would have been made with currently available technology. So where do we go from there for more processing power?
The beauty of citizen science is the ability for non-professional researchers to get up close and personal with science. Think about all of your experiences collecting data from your backyard, analyzing images of spring online, and learning about new topics in science, have you heard from the scientists you’re helping?
In our new series, “Conversations in CitSci”, we speak with the people behind the projects.
By Sarah Dunifon
“Plants have great stories to tell, if we take the time to listen to them,” says Kay Havens, consultant with Project BudBurst. “Project BudBurst (PBB) is a national campaign to track plant phenology which is the timing of natural events like budburst, first flower opening, full bloom, leaf color change and leaf drop,”. By knowing these phenophases (i.e. the timing of these events), we can better understand what effects climate change may be having on plants. With warmer springs, plants move through their leafing and blooming phases earlier. Read More