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The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott ****

We tend to have a very old fashioned idea of what astronomers do - peering through telescopes on dark nights. In reality, not only do many of them not use optical telescopes, but almost all observations are now performed electronically. Chris Lintott does a great job of bringing alive the realities of modern astronomy, and the way that the flood of data that is produced by all these electronic devices is being in part addressed by 'citizen scientists' - volunteer individuals who check image after image for interesting features.

Inevitably, all this cataloguing and categorising brings to mind Ernest Rutherford's infamous quotation along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This occurred to me even before Chris Lintott brought it up. Lintott defends the process against the Rutherford attack by pointing out that it can be a useful starting point for real, new research. To be fair to Rutherford, I think this misses the great man's point, which was not that the activity has no worth, but that it's a touch boring. For me, although this book is really valuable for the insights it gives, this was the one real problem - quite a lot of what was going on verged on the tedious.

It's certainly not true of all the book. Interestingly, although I'm far more interested in astronomy than wildlife, the parts where the writing really came alive tended to be on applications of this kind of crowdsourced data processing to natural history. In an example on penguin surveys, the reason for the lift in interest was that Lintott gave us an entertaining (and self-deprecating) description of his own spare-time involvement in replacing cameras for such a survey. In another example, involving cameras spotting African wildlife, what was particularly interesting was the discovery that the volunteers didn't like it if software was used to pre-select images that had animals in - they seemed to prefer the animals to be a surprise, rather than a constant presence.

There were some interesting accounts of astronomy-based citizen science (working with the misleadingly titled 'Zooniverse' software - I assumed from the 'zoo' part it was to do with living things), particularly where a discovery was made pretty much live on a TV show from Jodrell Bank, but it was in the astronomical sections that things did get a bit bogged down, perhaps because Lintott was inclined to go into too much detail. Incidentally, his repeated explanations of astronomical terminology does emphasise that maybe it's time astronomers got their act together and used proper scientific terms.

The book finishes with some interesting speculation on how things will develop as computer image recognition gets better. So far, humans are far better at spotting exceptions - the question is whether we will get to the point where machines have been trained with sufficient exceptions to be likely not to miss things in the long tail of the distribution. Perhaps citizen science is doomed long term - but it remains an interesting venture and opportunity for outreach for the moment.

I wish I had found the content more interesting, but there can be no doubt that the book is an excellent introduction to ways of handling large quantities of visual data.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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