Are you a Zooite? Perhaps you know a Zooite. I discovered the existence of Zooites over the weekend, thanks to a news story.
Zooites might sound like space aliens, but are, in fact, earthlings like you and me. A Zooite is a citizen scientist, an online participant in scientific projects on the Zooniverse.org website. The website claims about 750,000 participants worldwide, with hundreds more signing on everyday.
Some Zooites are planet hunters, and, apparently, planet finders.
Here’s what happened: Over the weekend I read an article claiming amateurs had discovered 42 probable new planets, including 15 in “the Goldilocks zone,” the habitable region around each star where the temperature is right for liquid water and, hence, living organisms.
Naturally, my first image was of some modern day Galileo in his backyard with a telescope from the Sears catalog. That naive picture vaporized faster than a Klingon zapped by photon torpedo. Not only is the Sears catalog no more, even the highest-powered telescope can’t plumb the depths of interstellar space to that degree.
Instead, these volunteer geeks — I can call them that, having been a slide-rule-slinging member of the group in high school — go online to the planethunters.org website, one of the Zooniverse projects.
For those of you too young to remember, a slide rule was non-electronic calculating tool good for roots and logarithms. And while I owned one in school, I never carried it around in a holster, like the hard-core geeks did. I quit the geek squad when I discovered theater. After becoming (in my own mind) a star, science seemed too dry and boring ... and didn’t make it with girls.
Anyway, these planet hunter volunteers pore over data collected by NASA’s Kepler telescope, launched three years ago. How come amateurs are finding these planets and not the professional researchers? In a nutshell, it seems there’s lots more planets out there than eyeballs looking for them.
Figures suggest there are a minimum of 100 billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy, at least 17 billion of them the size of our own. (OK, but what are the odds of finding a decent restaurant on one of them?)
A star’s light dims when a planet passes between it and the observer; think of an eclipse. When a volunteer finds evidence of a “transit,” as the passing of a planet is called, he or she forwards it on and professional scientists confirm it.
Think of it: Thanks to the World Wide Web, you and I can be 21st century Galileos. What an extraordinary tool for education. Instead of getting second-hand information from a text book, students can become part of the process of scientific discovery.
My impression — that of a layman who remembers (vaguely) the launch of Sputnik — is there is a very strong sense now in the scientific world and in the broader community, that life abounds in the cosmos. When I was a boy, it seems to me, the prevailing view of the universe was that of a cold, barren, hostile void. This change in perception — real or imagined — reminds me of a poem by 2011 Nobel Laureate, Swede Tomas Transtromer.
The last three lines of Transtromer’s “Vermeer” read:
“And what is empty turns its face to us
‘I am not empty, I am open.’”
It was 403 years ago this month when Galileo first observed what he eventually concluded were satellites of the planet Jupiter, a nail in the coffin for the earth-centered view of the universe and the birth of modern astronomy.
What extraordinary discoveries will be made over the next 400 years? The only thing more exciting than those potential discoveries, is the possibility that each and every one of us can contribute. If you get to work, you may have a planet named after you.