4 Things You Can Do for Science From Home

Science from home cropped for tease.
A boy wearing a homemade rocket suit.
You might be surprised by how much you can do for the world from home. Sunny studio/Shutterstock

Eventually, even Netflix will run its course.

There's only so many seasons of so many shows you can soak up from self-imposed couch quarantine before you finally ask, "Is there something more I can do?"

Well, now that you mention it, there's a lot more. In fact, scientists are looking for a few good couch potatoes to help them with several projects — all safely do-able from the comfort of home. Indeed, this is the time for sofa spuds to rise up and become citizen scientists.

"I think where we can tap into people's enthusiasm through their computer, that kind of captures the zeitgeist of coronavirus: what can we do when we're all trapped at home," Heather Lynch, a statistical ecologist at Stony Brook University in New York, tells Space.com.

1. Watch the real march of the penguins

The researchers say that emperor penguin populations may decrease by as much as 70% by 2100 due to sea-ice loss.
The researchers predict emperor penguin populations may decrease by as much as 70% by 2100 due to sea-ice loss. (Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr)

If you've got a penchant for penguins, for example, consider a project that asks people to pore over images in hopes of identifying the birds near known colonies. The pictures are automatically generated, but researchers need human peepers to identify birds that may be in them. If you're interested, visit the web site for Penguin Watch here.

Another project takes what may be considered a somewhat backward approach to finding signs of penguin life. Indeed, you will know them by the trail of their poop.

The tool — dubbed Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics (MAPPPD) — recruits people to scan satellite imagery of the Antarctic, looking not so much for the birds themselves, but rather their guano.

In both cases, the idea is to build on an existing database tracking penguins, maintaining accurate maps of their colonies and forecasting their growth or decline in the years ahead. That information becomes crucial for scientists and policy-makers who are trying to protect them in these uncertain times.

Penguin poop, as seen from space, also tells the sobering story of our planet's struggle with climate crisis.

"The citizen science part of this comes in because there's just so much of Antarctica," Lynch tells Space.com. "The way that we find penguin colonies is by and large through manual searching of imagery: image after image, foot by foot, scanning the coastline for evidence of penguin guano."

2. Chart the cosmos

A diagram of a man using a telescope.
You don't need a powerful telescope to help astronomers chart the cosmos. Uthai pr/Shutterstock

But if you're really hankering to get out of the house, why not leave the planet entirely? A telescope may be able to satisfy that pent-up urge to travel — a proven means of exploring far and wide without actually having to touch anything.

Besides, all that Netflix-binging can't be good for your spirits — especially when you're watching news reports of the ever-rising COVID-19 toll at intermission.

Think of astronomy as window-shopping for the soul. It broadens your horizons exponentially, while giving you a precious sense of perspective — a couple of things that we couldn't need more in times like this.

But even more importantly, your astronomical meanderings could help science in a big way.

Consider Galaxy Zoo 2, a science project that depends on amateur astronomers (that's you with a telescope) to help classify a million galaxies. That may seem like a tall order, but Galaxy Zoo is all about the human team. In fact, the first iteration of the project helped scientists classify millions of galaxies, while underpinning several major studies about the nature of our universe.

"Why do we need people to do this, rather than just using a computer?" Galaxy Zoo's website notes. "The simple answer is that the human brain is much better at recognizing patterns than a computer."

3. Take a bite out of noise pollution in the Big Apple

noise map for New York City
The darker the area, the higher the decibel of noise. Case in point: New York City. National Transportation Noise Map

But maybe your passion may not be so astronomical as it is aural. If you've got a keen ear, Sounds of New York City would like a word with you.

The pitch?

"Help us address one of the biggest quality of life issues facing urban residents. Identify city sounds to train our sensors' machine listening model that will automatically monitor and mitigate dangerous noise pollution."

So far, nearly 2,000 citizen scientists have signed up for the New York University-led project. Essentially, people are asked to identify various sounds recorded anonymously from the streets of the Big Apple. Scientists are hoping the data will help them fight this dangerous modern plague, and things are off to a good start. So far, 64,131 different sounds have been identified.

4. Share your backyard habitat with the world

A small dragonfly in a backyard.
Every backyard is its own unique habitat. TTshutter/Shutterstock

And if you really want to ground yourself in these uncertain times, you can always get some real earth between your fingers. A partnership between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, dubbed iNaturalist, asks that you dig around in your yard and take pictures of the critters you come across. Or maybe that big old tree in the backyard is read for its close-up.

Those images, uploaded to the website, are then shared with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, where scientists can avail themselves of the data.

"If people have access to the outdoors, it's a good time to dig deep and see what's in your garden — turn over rocks and look for snails and build a species list and see what's there," Rebecca Johnson, co-director of citizen science at the California Academy of Sciences, tells Atlas Obscura.