Have you heard of Cincinnatus, the original citizen soldier of Rome? Lucius Quinctius, former consul of Rome, is said to have been in his retirement farming his land one day when officials approached him to accept a six-month dictatorship in order to lead the Roman army in battle against the neighboring Aequi. He led the troops to victory in a mere fifteen days, after which he immediately returned to his plow, declining what could have been another five months of dictatorship that was due him. Somewhere along the line, he acquired the name “Cincinnatus” because of his curly hair!
I first heard the term “citizen scientist” on Ira Flatow’s “Science Friday”, broadcast on my Cincinnati National Public Radio station. A citizen scientist, according to Wikipedia refers to “projects or ongoing programs of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation.” The idea is that scientific research, based largely on the gathering and analysis of empirical data, can be greatly helped along if scientists don’t have to rely only on their own five senses’ perceptions of what is immediately accessible to them. Rather such research can marshal the eyes and ears (primarily) of regular every-day people situated in myriad parts of the world to increase the number of observations and enlarge the scope of their territory.
When I received the alert from a fellow Charlotte Mason educator that the Great Backyard Bird Count was coming up Feb 18-21, I recognized it as an opportunity for the girls and me to take our hands off our pencils, take up our citizen scientist battle gear (binoculars, sketch books, field guides) and ready ourselves to do our duty.
Here’s how it works. Each citizen scientist creates a list of birds he or she sees in at least fifteen minutes’ time on at least one day Friday-Monday of the Presidents’ Day weekend. You may participate all four days, for more than fifteen minutes a day, or at multiple times a day for at least 15 minutes each. You may participate in more than one location. You should create a new list for each location, and be sure to note the greatest number of a single species you see together at one time. Go to your local library for a field guide of birds in your area, or go to www.gbbc.birdsource.org to download a regional bird checklist. You may submit your bird lists to that same site.
Once the data is collected, scientists are able to “detect changes in birds’ numbers and locations from year to year,” explains Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. While some marked shifts in bird populations are normal, others can corroborate danger in the proverbial coal mine, such as the steady decline of American Crow sightings since 2003 when the first outbreaks of the West Nile virus were discovered in the United States.
If you are reading this post after February 21, 2011, no need to despair. Now you know of this project and can participate in the Christmas Bird Count, or in next year’s GBBC. Take heart! There are MANY citizen scientists projects out there inviting your participation:
www.thewildlab.org — track bird and marine life
www.audubon.org — participate as a budding naturalist nature research
www.galaxyzoo.org — classify galaxies according to their shapes
www.greatsunflower.org — track pollinators by planting sunflowers and doing regular counts of your bee populations
www.planethunters.org — track changes in light curves of stars to detect the presence of previously unidentified planets.
www.einstein.phys.uwm.edu –lend your computer power to the search for gravitational waves from pulsars
www.folding.stanford.edu — participate in finding out how proteins fold in order to do the work of biology, and how they mis-fold and cause diseases
I love the idea of leaving my everyday, sometimes-mundane-but-certainly-necessary tasks to do my duty for my country and returning, after the exhilaration of battle and “victory” of amassing data, to take up the plow, er, pencil once again. The girls and I may not become official or professional scientists in this lifetime, but we can give our attention upon occasion in order to aid those who have committed to live with their eyes and ears to the ground for the sake of science. In doing so, we are sure to be blessed by an increased awareness of the abundant riches of this material world until, like Cincinnatus, our hair curls.
© 2011 Lisa Cadora