Enter the maze

Victorian Volunteers Needed

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

A Barnacle: copyright www.istockphoto.com 39013348

What was Ada Lovelace thinking about when she wrote: "If amateurs of either sex would amuse their idle hours with experiments on this subject, & would keep an accurate journal of their daily observations, we should have in a few years a mass of registered facts to compare with the observation of the scientific".

Yes, crowdsourcing science experiments! Now we call it Citizen Science. She had just read a book by a Baron von Reichenbach on magnetism in which he had suggested a whole host of experiments, such as moving magnets up and down a person's body, showing people magnets in the dark, and holding heavy and light magnets and asking them if they felt any sensations. She could see that he had some great ideas, but she was not convinced by his examples alone.

Ada was not the only Victorian to ask the general public for help collecting data. Charles Darwin, the Origin of Species man, wrote to gardeners, diplomats, army officers and scientists across the world asking for information about the plants they grew and the animals (including people) they saw. This all helped him build up the concrete evidence that natural selection was the way evolution works. People even sent him gifts of live animals in the post. A Danish gentleman sent him a parcel of live barnacles. When they did not arrive on time, Darwin, desperate to dissect the species, panicked and got ready to offer a reward in the Times newspaper. Luckily they arrived intact, fresh and not too smelly!

Today we might take part in the RSPB's Big Garden Bird Watch, contribute to a blog, 'favourite' a tweet, 'like' an Instagram post or vote for our favorite performer in a talent show. We participate, and 'amuse our idle hours' sometimes in the pursuit of science, sometimes not. Public research is a big new topic, with governments and companies looking to use people power. Innovations such as shared mapping systems ask users to upload details about a place, add photographs, rectify mistakes. Wikipedia is sourced by volunteers, with other volunteers checking accuracy. Galaxy Zoo volunteers even found a whole new planet that orbits four stars!

What would Ada be asking us to research? Test your own DNA and send in the results? Measure air quality and keep a record on a central database? Build your own 'find a barnacle' app. But rather than writing a journal or sending a parcel of barnacles, log it on line, click this link here, design your own survey. Ada's computers are in on the act again.

Why not find a Citizen Science project on something you are interested in. Sometimes called public science or science outreach projects they might be run by local universities, museums, your council, charities or through crowdsourced internet projects such as www.zooniverse.org. Share what you do with others and spread Ada's word to be a modern day volunteer.