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The growing role of amateurs in collecting scientific data
Wednesdays 9, 16 & 23 August 2006 9.00-9.30pm 

From using home computer downtime to search for extraterrestrial life and designer drug molecules to asking amateur experts to track comets with their back garden telescopes, the public are getting involved in a huge range of surveys and experiments. In this series, Sue Nelson enters the world of the amateur scientist and discovers the hidden army of willing helpers to the scientific community.

Producer Fiona Roberts (l), presenter Sue Nelson (c) & Colin Clay of the Hardy Orchid Society (r)
Orchid hunter Colin Clay (r) with presenter Sue Nelson (c)
and producer Fiona Roberts (l)

Episode 1: Conservation

The British Trust for Ornithology has a long tradition of using amateurs to collect information on birds.

One scheme is their Bird Ringing Scheme where groups of dedicated volunteers catch birds and give them a uniquely numbered metal band around their legs to give information on migration and survival.

Other schemes require less input - you can take part in the Garden BirdWatch project simply by monitoring the birds that visit your back garden.

But birds are not the only organisms monitored, counted and studied.

Pick an organism in Britain and there's bound to be a voluntary organisation which looks after it.  Sue Nelson meets amateur moth trappers in Bedfordshire and orchid rescuers in the Cotswolds.

But it's not just a fun activity or a publicity stunt by the organisation.

The data collected by volunteers is essential. It would be impossible to set up an army of professional scientists to survey Britain's natural history at the same scale as the amateurs.

Listen again Listen again to episode 1
A screenshot of SETI@home
A screenshot of SETI@home

Episode 2: Computers

If you want to do your bit for humanity, and help scientists fight the war against cancer or HIV, halt the spread of Malaria, help mathematicians discover the largest known prime number, or even search for ET, then you don't have to do much more than log on to your computer.

A plethora of new science projects are relying on the fact that a few thousand, or even 100,000 humble home computers are better than one giant super computer in trawling through the vast amounts of data generated.

Distributed computing really took off with the launch of SETI@home, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, back in 1999. 

It so captured the public imagination that other scientists realised that distributed, or volunteer, computing could work for them, too.

But it doesn't have to be a passive pastime.

Teams of so called "crunchers", or volunteer computing enthusiasts compete to see who can "crunch" through the most data on many of these projects.

Johan, one of the world's top "crunchers", says that not only is he excited that he is doing something worthwhile to help humanity, but that he has gained close friends and colleagues through the experience.

Listen again Listen again to episode 2
Pictured (l-r): Tom Tyler, Damian Peach, Sue Nelson (Presenter) Dave Tyler, Robin Scagell
Amateur astronomers gather at dusk in Dave Tyler's garden observatory.
 (l-r: Tom Tyler, Damian Peach, Sue Nelson (Presenter) Dave Tyler, Robin Scagell.)

Episode 3: Astronomy

Read producer Martin Redfern's BBC News article about the programme.

Sue Nelson dons her anorak and heads out into the night to meet some amateur astronomers

Some of these enthusiasts get a thrill out of seeing sky sights with their own eyes, while others patiently scan the heavens to discover things that no human has seen before. 

David Tate monitors the skies from a small fibreglass dome which he built himself in his back garden near High Wycombe.

He has set up a telescope with a webcam attached which he uses to record movie sequences of the planets. After processing, some of his images rival those produced by the professionals.

Mike Oates in Manchester doesn't need to watch the skies in his search for comets: he uses a home computer rather than a telescope.

By monitoring images taken by the NASA/ESA SOHO satellite, published daily on the Internet, he can record comets which graze the sun and sometimes crash into it. So far Mike has discovered 145 comets without even looking down a telescope.

But the top prize for amateur dedication must go to Tom Boles in Suffolk.

Every night that it is not cloudy he goes to his little observatory and uses three telescopes simultaneously to scan about 12,000 distant galaxies every week.

On the cloudy nights he studies each galaxy to search for the faint flashes of distant exploding stars or supernovae. Over the decade he has been doing this, he has clocked up a world record of 202 discoveries! 

Listen again Listen again to episode 3
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