3 incredible examples of citizen science in action

Visitors look at a reproduction of the Lascaux caves paintings.

The work of citizen scientists can be crucial to the success of large-scale science projects. Image: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Simon Torkington
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • An amateur archaeologist has deciphered an early human writing system.
  • He found that a lunar calendar was embedded in Ice Age cave paintings in Europe.
  • Citizen scientists provide vital support for a whole range of research projects.

An amateur archaeologist appears to have rewritten the history of human writing – dating our first scribes to around 10,000 years earlier than first thought.

The discovery was made during a detailed study of ancient paintings on the walls of caves across Europe, as reported in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

General view of Lascaux 4, a new complete replica of the original prehistoric painted caves.
A replica of the Lascaux cave paintings, which revealed an early writing system. Image: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

His uncovering of an Ice Age proto-writing system and an early form of a lunar calendar is a coup for so-called citizen scientists, who frequently offer important support to mainstream scientific research initiatives.

The amateur in this case is Ben Bacon, a furniture restorer by trade. Bacon spent long hours studying a series of dots and other small markings that appear within the paintings, trying to decipher their meaning.

Multiple images showing cave markings.
A series of small markings in cave paintings represent an early lunar calendar. Image: Cambridge Archaeological Journal et al.

He developed a theory that the markings related to the life cycles of the animals, detailing the lunar month in which they mated and gave birth to their offspring.

To test his theory, Bacon teamed up with academics from Durham University and University College London.

Professor Robert Kentridge from Durham University told the BBC that Bacon’s research has provided valuable insights. "The implications are that Ice Age hunter-gatherers didn't simply live in their present, but recorded memories of the time when past events had occurred and used these to anticipate when similar events would occur in the future, an ability that memory researchers call mental time-travel.”

More discoveries by citizen scientists

The work of citizen scientists can be crucial to the success of large-scale science projects. Some research initiatives require huge data sets that would be impossible for a small team of scientists with a limited budget to gather. Here are some examples of how citizen science has delivered big results.

Tracking down a lost spacecraft

In 2018, an amateur astronomer called the American space agency NASA claiming he had detected a signal from a long-lost satellite.

The space agency had lost contact with IMAGE in 2005, and had given up hope of ever seeing it again.

A Gif showing a part of the Earth changing through time.
The IMAGE satellite sent back startling pictures of the polar auroras before it was lost. Image: Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman

Ten days after the tip-off from Scott Tilley, NASA engineers got together with scientists from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland and confirmed the signal had come from IMAGE.

Water-quality monitoring

For those of us without the ability to go hunting for lost spaceships, citizen science projects closer to home can give us the opportunity to make a difference on some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

The EarthEcho Water Challenge engages citizen scientists globally to help protect the bodies of water we all rely on.

The project equips volunteers with water-quality testing kits to collect and assess samples from local water sources. The results are uploaded online.

At present, volunteers in more than 140 countries are providing water-quality data to the project.

Getting involved

Everything from detecting space dust to monitoring plant life and counting bird numbers is on offer, and there’s always the chance you’ll uncover a major scientific breakthrough.

Discover

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

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