Kepler is a giant telescope floating in space, taking pictures of approximately 200,000 stars — every 30 seconds — in order to find any possible Earth-like planets in the cluster. There is so much data being collected that the Kepler team simply does not have the man hours to sift through it all. Since one has to first find these planets before even beginning to study them, identifying candidates is a pretty big deal.
Considering this huge amount of information, the team decided to open up the analysis to citizen scientists — a.k.a. gamers. In an online, spruced-up version of the info called Planet Hunters (which has over 40,000 players total), gamers analyze data sets in order to find clues that a star is really a planet. Picking the top 10 most likely candidates allowed the pros to step in and select the best two. A paper published this week reveals the two planet candidates which were identified by the dedicated citizen scientists, naming each and every participant by name.
The past week or so has been a good one for citizens helping scientists by gaming; another set of smart players helped scientists with a molecule which is implicated in the AIDS virus.
These two amazing successes show us that when properly engaged, even non-professionals can act as “supercomputers” to help us advance in various types of science. More puzzles should be made available, more such games designed and the whole concept studied further. By engaging real humans instead of machines, we can start solving these problems right now, while giving many people a valuable (and possibly cherished) way of spending their time in a better way. Can we design better games that will bring in more players?