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Wikimedia Commons

11 Citizen Science Projects That Need Your Help

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Wikimedia Commons

Love science, but don't have a degree? No problem. Citizen science projects recruit ordinary men and women to help gather crucial research data. So if you’d like to help advance human knowledge but aren’t too keen on suffering through several years of grad school in the process, why not join one of these fine initiatives?

1. Count Birds for the Audubon Society

Bonus points if you spot a partridge in a pear tree. Founded in 1900, this annual avian census monitors the populations of birds throughout the western hemisphere. Volunteers tally up their feathered friends’ numbers within a 15-mile radius from mid-December to early January.

2. Be an Earthquake Witness

The scope of a given earthquake can prove difficult to decipher—so the United States Geological Survey urges witnesses to lend some much-needed clarity by filling out a brief questionnaire in conjunction with its “Did You Feel It?” earthquake hazards program. “It’s very simple to be a very valuable participant,” says seismologist David Wald. “You just have to observe what happened during an earthquake.”

3. Search for Aliens With SETI

It might sound like some very creative spam, but by downloading a special computer program, you might actually help prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. Today, several million internet users lend their computers' power to help astronomers search for radio waves of other-worldly origin via the SETI@Home organization. For more information, go here.

4. Help Scientists Understand Odor Perception

According to the endeavor’s official website, “Medical professionals often do not ask patients about changes in their sense of smell. Therefore, little is known about this topic. With your help we will change this.” Anonymous responders who’ve experienced shifts in odor perception help a team of physiologists learn more about this poorly-documented phenomenon

5. Predict Future Weather By Uncovering Weather of the Past

Old news can still be useful. “[If] we wish to understand what the weather will do in the future, then we need to understand what the weather was doing in the past,” says climatologist Clive Wilkinson. Volunteers digitize handwritten weather notes from bygone decades (and even centuries) to help create more accurate climate-projection models for future generations.

6. Discover New Stars and Galaxies

Almost as vast as the universe itself is the debt astronomy owes to the findings of dedicated amateurs. Through the Milky Way Project, volunteers identify celestial objects photographed by the Spitzer space telescope. As of this writing, they’ve categorized several thousand star clusters and galaxies.

7. Keep an Eye on Flies That Turn Bees Into Zombies

One nasty parasite is causing quite a buzz. For a brief run-down on the Apocephalus borealis fly, check out the video above. This insect plants its eggs in unsuspecting bees. After the larvae hatch, they attack their hosts’ nervous systems and transform them into “zombie-like” drones. Concerned citizens can help track these unsavory freeloaders by joining San Francisco State University’s “ZomBee Watch” campaign.

8. Track Who's Pollinating Flowers

Speaking of bees, detail-oriented volunteers count the number of pollinators that visit a given plant over various stretches of time in conjunction with the yearly Great Sunflower Project.

9. Define Verbs to Help Understand the Human Brain

Human thought itself, claim the Verb Corners initiative’s founders, can be better understood by studying verbs and what they really mean. On their website, you can help amass precious data by answering a series of questions. These queries are designed to help root out the message you intend to convey with a given verb in various contexts.

10. Tweet Your Local Snowfall

Thanks to twitter, advancing science is just a hashtag away. The next time you find a blanket of snow covering your driveway, measure the depth and tweet it to #snowtweets with your location/zip code. A gang of friendly Canadian meteorologists from the University of Waterloo will file away the input. Best of all (at least for Americans), using the metric system is strictly optional.

11. Fight Noise Pollution With Your Smart Phone

Society’s getting louder, or so it seems. Help fight sound pollution by turning your smart phone into a portable noise sensor! Above is a (surprisingly quiet) demo video.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.