Dr. Stu’s Reviews: citizen science puzzles

This guest post was contributed by Dr. Stuart Farrimond, a science teacher at Wiltshire College in the United Kingdom.

If you’ve ever felt like you could be an undiscovered genius, then today’s blog post is for you!

Get ready to use your grey matter to push back the boundaries of science… by playing video games! If you think you could be the next Einstein (without the hair, of course), just put down that Sudoku and take a look at these computer games. You never know, you just might help discover the cure for cancer (seriously)!

Now, a new way of crowdsourcing our brain power has arrived. No longer do you need to feel guilty for playing Angry Birds because now you can indulge your puzzle gaming passion for a good cause. By doing some online puzzles, you can unwittingly do some of the problem solving that scientists don’t have the time to do. And take heart because researchers have even discovered that members of the public are just as good as professionals at solving even the most complex of problems!


5. Old Weather: Help Predict Global Warming

Do you enjoy history? Do you like trying to decipher and decode riddles? If so, then Old Weather could be up your street.

After registering online at the Old Weather website, you “climb aboard” a World War I Royal Navy warship. You are tasked with reading and deciphering a scanned image of the ship’s weather log. As you and other online players simultaneously track work out through the ship’s journey, you can watch the warship move across the globe, your efforts being shown on a world map for all to see!

Good For: history buffs, environmentally-minded crossword fans, and nautical enthusiasts.

Play Old Weather!

Galaxy Zoo

4. Galaxy Zoo: Discover Stars, Galaxies and Planets

It was Sunday morning, and I was lying in bed.

“What are you doing?,” my wife asked.

“Classifying galaxies,” I replied.

“What?” – She looked unconvinced.

In a vain attempt to stimulate my brain from the “land of nod,” I was playing with with my phone while lying underneath the duvet covers.

“Real galaxies? Don’t be silly! What are you really doing?”

Contrary to my bed-head hair and pyjama appearance, I was in fact making a valuable contribution to galaxy research! From under the protection of a warm bedclothes, I was taking part in Galaxy Zoo – looking at never before seen galaxies.

In what started off as a small project with a handful of volunteers, Galaxy Zoo has spawned into a family of online astronomy games and activities, with thousands of volunteers helping to sift through the millions of images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. If you want to take part, you register your details online on the Zooniverse website, and you can have a go at a whole variety of activities from detecting solar storms to mapping the surface of the moon or even searching for extra-terrestrial planets!

When you join the Zooniverse, all your achievements and discoveries are recorded on your profile.

Good For: frustrated astronomers, Star Trek fans, and anyone who dreams of having a star named after them!


3. Foldit! Bend those proteins…

Foldit is the granddaddy of online science games, and since starting in 2008, it has attracted a huge following. Players solve complex three dimensional puzzles by folding proteins, and the best scoring players have already helped scientists get a better grasp on how diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer work.

The game is like a cross between playing a complex Rubik’s cube and fiddling with virtual plasticine! When you start playing, you are given a virtual protein that you must bend and mold into an optimal shape. By using your mouse, game play is basically bending a multi-coloured worm into as small a shape as possible — the smaller you can fold your protein, the higher your score. But, bending it the wrong direction could lead to different parts of the molecule clashing which reduces your score.

Good For: competitive puzzle players, members of Mensa, and Rubik’s cube fans.

Play FoldIt!

Learn how RNA folds, and then create your own shapes. Photo: EteRNA screenshot.

2. EteRNA: Hours of molecule building fun…

Mum… Look what I made!

If you studied chemistry at school, then perhaps you remember those metal and plastic molecule building kits? It’s a bit like spiky Lego and is designed to help students understand how atoms fit together to form molecules – although most of the time it was more fun just to make groovy-looking shapes!

EteRNA is an online game that sets you challenges to build molecules of using a virtual molecule building kit – but scientists may actually end up making the molecules you design!

The theme of EteRNA is to design and build molecules of RNA – a mysterious breed of molecule that is present within all our cells. RNA seems to help control the inner workings of all living cells. Biochemists are able to make RNA fairly easily in the lab, but they suspect that if they can design and synthesize RNA molecules of the right shape and size, they may be able to correct faults within our cells – and so possibly treat conditions such as HIV and cancer.

This kind of RNA design is still in its early days, and the EteRNA game was devised so that the public could give scientists suggestions for better molecule design. As a reward, the highest scoring molecule of the week actually gets made in the test tubes of a biochemistry laboratory to see what it does!

Solve puzzles by building your very own RNA molecules in EteRNA!

Good For: fans of logic puzzles, chemistry geeks, and anyone else.

Phylo Screenshot

1. Phylo: Become a Geneticist!

Cracking the genetic code has become a huge undertaking. One technique genetics researchers have been using is to compare sections of human DNA with that of other animals – hunting for clues about certain genetic disorders. Clever folk at McGill University have distilled this tedious task into an abstract colour matching game called Phylo.

Far from being a monotonous process, players can choose to play the puzzle game against each other or the computer in a race against time. The rules are simple: To slide rows of coloured blocks horizontally and try to line up as many vertical lines of the same colour as possible. It starts out easy but the difficulty quickly ramps up as more and more rows are added; and it all makes for a rather engaging and somewhat addictive aversion – which is ideal for that afternoon teabreak!

Good For: Sudoku gurus, fans of colour-matching games like Bejeweled, and puzzle players with a short attention span.

Play Phylo online!

Got a citizen science project to share that isn’t yet in the Science for Citizens Project Finder? Feel free to let us know, and we’ll cover it on the Science for Citizens blog!

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Categories: Astronomy & Space, Chemistry, Computers & Technology

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