Citizen science through the ages: Looking back on amateur astronomers and blue-collar biologists

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A group of 36 students in Western University's Master of Arts in Journalism class has spent three months studying and reporting on citizen science. Over the next three weeks, we will be sharing our citizen science stories -- how it emerged and evolved, where it stands now and where it's going. We will be tackling scepticism about whether or not it is indeed science, looking at the effectiveness of gathering "big data" and introducing activists who are using citizen science to bring attention to their causes. To view all of the articles in this special series thus far, visit our Citizen Science page

 Fred Urquhart and the mystery of the missing monarchs

 University of Toronto zoology professor Fred Urquhart dedicated his life to answering one question: Where do all the monarch butterflies go during the winter? There was little known about monarch migration, so in 1937 Urquhart started tagging the wings of thousands of butterflies by himself.

Fifteen years later, Urquhart's wife and research partner, Nora, wrote an article to enlist the assistance of volunteer research associates, or citizen scientists, to help with the project.

"To create an organization like this I think was fairly new and innovative and highly successful because you had people from all over North America and Mexico really keen of being part of this project," said Don Davis, who joined the Urquhart project in 1967. "One memorable year in about 1972 I tagged 1,000 (butterflies)."

Forty years and thousands of volunteers later, the Urquharts discovered that the butterflies travelled from Canada and the northeast United States to California and the Gulf of Mexico. (Watch the related video at the top of this story.)

Although it was an innovative scheme, the Urquhart project wasn't the first time scientists turned to amateur observers -- citizen scientists -- for help.

In fact, for over 3,000 years part-time researchers have been collecting data in fields as varied as botany, astronomy and meteorology. (Watch a Citizen Science Heritage Moment on Monarch Butterflies.)

In the beginning: Citizen science in ancient societies

Thousands of years ago, professional scientists as we know them did not exist, leaving scientific progress to everyday citizens.

These people were not looking to answer the great mysteries of life, but to address the issues that they faced on a daily basis.

In some of the earliest agrarian societies, pestilence was a major concern. Farmers in China's Shang Dynasty started to record locust outbreaks in order to predict the damages that would be done to their crops. The earliest known record of locusts can be attributed to a 3,500-year-old ox bone asking "Will locusts appear in the field; will it not rain?"

Progress in Asian phenology, or the study of the effect of climate on plant and animal life cycles, continues to AD 800, where Japanese court diarists began recording cherry blossom flowering dates. The peek blossom times were needed in order to set a date for Japan's annual cherry blossom festival.

Over in the Americas, the Native American Chacoan society of present day New Mexico built a city based on astronomical findings. From approximately AD 900 to AD 1130, multi-storied buildings were erected and oriented to correspond to the midpoints and extremes of the solar and lunar cycles.

Similar discoveries were made in medieval Europe, where French winemakers reconstructed summer temperature variations using grape harvest data. Since 1370, French wine makers in Burgundy have kept records of grape-harvest dates. Some of these results revealed that high temperatures in recent decades have rarely been seen in the last 600 years.

These ancient instances of citizen science lead up to the Renaissance, where a new kind of citizen scientist emerged, one who would dominate many discoveries of the era: The gentleman scientist.

A new man for a new age: The 'gentleman scientist'

The Renaissance ushered in new ways of thinking about and examining the world around us. Science wouldn't be science if it wasn't constantly evolving, but it was during the Renaissance, the late 14th to 17th centuries, when things really picked up in the West, according to science historian Josh MacFadyen at Western University.

That was when wealthy patrons began sponsoring scientists, much like they sponsored artists and sculptors, as a way to show off their own knowledge and culture. It was suddenly cool to be a nerd, or to at least invest in nerds.

As the Renaissance bled into the Enlightenment -- another period of intense discovery and knowledge -- the foundations were laid for a class of educated, informed and curious amateur scientists.

"They loved science and they had the means to pursue it financially," says MacFadyen. He points to well-known men like Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin as examples, but he also singles out gentlemen scientists like Britain's Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, who invented the blastpipe, a critical part in steam locomotives.

"Some of these men are remembered, others have faded into obscurity," MacFadyen says. "But they were all united and consumed by an absolute passion for science," he adds.

They were also united by a "long-distance social network" centuries before Facebook arrived on the scene, the historian points out.

The Republic of Letters was an early modern network of thinkers who refused to let geographical, language, national and generational barriers get in the way of their pursuit of knowledge.

This informal group of gentlemen scientists, philosophers and intellectuals wrote and shared letters with each other around the world, discussing ideas and discoveries.

"Things have definitely changed since then," says MacFadyen. "Gentlemen scientists were not citizen scientists, but they were the prototype. Technologies have changed, social and economic backgrounds have broadened, but the motivation is the same. That passion for knowledge is what binds the gentleman scientist to today's citizen scientist." (Watch another Citizen Science Heritage Moment on 'Gentleman Scientists'.)

Professionalization: Re-defining the citizen scientist

 The professionalization of scientific research in the late 19th century was a turning point for citizen science.

Amateur science gave way to professionals due to the rise in training and education.

"By the 20th century, of course, the amateur was becoming a less elite category, one increasingly subordinated to professionals in positions of authority," wrote University of Arizona science historian Jeremy Vetter, in an article for the journal Science in Context in 2011.

But there was still a need for citizen scientists and amateur involvement transitioned to collaborative projects with professional guidance.

It's a relationship that continues today.

"Over the past 100 years, scientific organizations have increasingly included volunteers in large-scale monitoring projects," Cornell University ornithologist Rick Bonney wrote with the help of other researchers in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

This institutional appropriation has taken several forms, and many museums continue to house recorded observations, photographs and samples. Historically, these contributions have been used in the study of areas like ecology, evolution and climate change.

For example, the Audubon Society's Christmas Day Bird Count has been going on since 1900, resulting in a long-term study of bird populations in the Americas. The Turing Sunflower Project is a tribute to British mathematician Alan Turing, whose experiments in the first half of the 20th century explored the link between mathematical sequences and sunflower seeds. Now everyday citizens can grow their own sunflowers, count the seeds and report the data to the Turing Project.

The rise of the Internet and social media has made it even easier for volunteers to contribute to professional projects.

SETI@Home, a public computing project started in 1999 at the University of California. Volunteers watch radio signals for signs of alien life.

"Citizen science is also increasingly seen as a way to engage the public in science, improve scientific literacy and interest in science, and inform participants about particular topics," says ornithologist, Rick Bonney. (Watch a Citizen Science Heritage Moment on Universities.) 

Looking back and looking forward

 Citizen scientists have long played a part in the way modern day science is conducted  through observation, data collection and discovery. It's a past that includes interests, hobbies, and questions all being answered and attended to by regular people.

Although the role of the modern day scientist has since overshadowed the citizen scientist, there remains a place in science for these interested citizens.

Without the involvement of average Joes in projects such as Urquhart's butterfly breakthrough and the Audubon bird count there wouldn't be the kind of information that exists today.

Mysteries have been solved and the unknown has become known thanks in large part to those that call themselves citizen scientists.

The use of these everyday citizens in science will continue to engage others who do have a contribution to make to the world of science, even if it is as simple as sending a monarch butterfly back to the University of Toronto for further research.  

 

Kristen Duncan, Andrew Forbes, Josef Jacobson, Emily Leighton and Katie Starr are journalism students at the University of Western Ontario -- part of a team producing this Citizen Science series for co-publication by rabble.ca and The Tyee.

Coming up next in this special series, on Friday we'll ask, "Can you be a citizen scientist and an activist?" Wallace J. Nichols, a biologist certainly thinks so. By asking the right questions and encouraging citizen participation, Wallace J. Nichols turned a sea turtle egg collector of 40 years into a protector.

Further reading

-Science in Context: Article on the history of public participation in scientific research

-http://www.esajournals.org/toc/fron/10/6">Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Ecological Society of America 

-"Flight of the Butterflies," a 3D film based on the Urquhart story []

-Cooperative Weather Observers. Notable observers include Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson

-"A Brief History of Citizen Science," Science 2.0

-"The history of public participation in ecological research," The Ecological Society of America

-List of science researchers by time period, Windows to the Universe

-"Bird Lore Vol. XVII - 1915," a historic bi-monthly magazine, National Audubon Society

-"History of Citizen Science," Cosmo Quest, an online science community 

Further Reading

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