Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Consulting Editor


Saturday Night in Saskatchewan
by Steve Stanton

Praise the System
by J. Richard Jacobs

Network Outage Engineer
by Erin Lale

Unintentional Colonists by Elizabeth Guizzetti

Mr. Weston’s Key
by Todd A. Burnett

Central Battle Command, Allied Forces: Day Four by Marilyn K. Martin

We Do Not Serve Weeping Men
by Eric Del Carlo


Zeros ... All Those Zeros! by Eric M. Jones

Facing Facts—And Analyzing Them
by John McCormick





Comic Strips



Facing Facts—And Analyzing Them

By John McCormick

WITH SO MUCH EMPHASIS on Facebook, Twitter (you can’t spell twitter without a “twit”) and G+, you could forget that the Internet actually grew out of DARPANET and USENET, both of which were created to share scientific discoveries and assist in academic collaboration.

But if you care to look you will find real scientific work being done on the web by people like you and me.

Many professional scientists stopped dismissing citizen science when the Nature International Weekly Journal of Science study showed that Wikipedia was just as accurate as The Britannica in their Special Report about Internet encyclopedias on December 14, 2005.

One of the better known and longest running projects is SETI, but some people would consider that more pseudo-science than real science (I’m not among those).

Still, it may be decades, if ever, before you get any personal satisfaction from helping analyze radio signals. If you live in a shorter time frame than a galactic civilization in this particular alternate reality, you might look elsewhere for more immediate satisfaction.

While SETI is real science in my estimation (negative results are also results), individual involvement in the project mainly consists of setting up the software and letting SETI run programs in the background with your computer(s) forming part of the cloud.

That’s not very satisfying if you want to really feel involved. Of course you can participate in SETI while pursuing other, more immediate projects.

Other online science is very much hands-on, involving analysis that requires human beings (for now) such as visual pattern recognition.

Galaxy Zoo

I’ve participated in their projects a number of times over the years, as have about a quarter-million other citizen scientists. The tasks are simple enough to keep training time to a minimum, but they provide valuable information to astronomers by relieving them of the time spent classifying galaxies into various categories.

The way it works is simple; volunteers view deep sky photos, decide how to best describe them, and astronomers take the results as a guide to which objects they should observe in greater detail.

Back in 2007, Galaxy Zoo launched their first descriptive astronomy project online using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Members made 50 million classifications during the first year.

The following is a summary of results gleaned from the initial classification project: “Thanks to Galaxy Zoo's database of volunteer-generated classifications, we now know that spiral galaxies do not have a preference for rotating clockwise or anti-clockwise, and that for the time being at least, our current theories of how the universe works are still valid. This may be something of a disappointment, but in another paper we were able to look at how neighboring galaxies spin. It turns out that two galaxies which are close together are more likely to spin in the same direction than the opposite—and that tells us about how they start spinning in the first place. Intriguingly, there also seems to be a link between regions where galaxies spin together and how recently they've formed stars. Working out what's going on will keep us in a spin for a while yet ...”

Any way you look at it, that is real science.

The current Galaxy Zoo project involves the Hubble and you can see the tutorial at the Hubble Tutorial page.


Closer to home is a project with the goal of classifying all the craters on the moon; see the Moon Mappers site at CosmoQuest. Three million plus NASA images have already been classified by volunteers but the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is always obtaining new images. Volunteers classify craters and boulders they see in digitized photographs. One minute per image is found to be about optimal. Sites identified as interesting get more attention later.

Climate change

You could also help build a climate database by gathering weather data from old ships’ logs; go to Model Earth's Climate Using Wartime Ship Logs. The once-great British Navy collected thousands of ships’ logs that now need to be transcribed from digital images of handwriting to text that can be processed by computers. So far this has been completed for about 40 percent of the logs. Scientists use the transcriptions to chart courses of ships and compile climate data from the data recorded in the logs. Some ships sailed in sub-Arctic waters for 40 years. There are about 900 pages left to transcribe. Unfortunately, some ship captains or first officers had handwriting almost as bad as mine or my doctor’s.


If sociology and anthropology are more your field, you can help study ancient Greek culture by analyzing texts online; get more information at Study the Lives of Ancient Greeks. The task is not to translate Greek to English; instead what volunteer scientists are needed for is to identify faded images on papyrus and match them up with corresponding Greek letters. This is done from digital images on an online Greek letter keyboard.

Discover a new planet

The Kepler spacecraft data need to be analyzed for each star every half hour. Kepler records a star’s brightness; learn how you can help at Find Planets Around Stars. Participants view and mark photometric charts where they see dips in light output, which may indicate an orbiting planet.

New projects

The Zooniverse Real Science Online site is always starting new projects, so check them out once in a while even if none of these interest you.

How to participate

Citizen science tends to fall into two main categories—collecting data and analyzing data.

Although there seem to be fewer scientists around these days, data collection is running far ahead of the ability to analyze or, in some instances, even store data.

From my days as a member of SIGCAT (Special Interest Group CD-ROM Applications Technology) at USGS HQ in Virginia, I remember the geological survey office was very concerned with developing optical storage as the only practical way to store the vast quantity of data being collected by satellites. A lot of data was subsequently lost simply due to lack of storage capacity. At that time the CIA was also moving to optical storage and started putting one-time crypto pads on CD-ROMs.

Although the USGS storage problem was essentially solved decades ago (back when I wrote “A Guide to Optical Storage Technology”), the ability to store ever more scientific data has led to an even greater problem—how do you mine all the data and make sense of them?

Some projects, such as SETI, need more cloud computing capacity, but others, such as the GalaxyZoo and Zooniverse projects, really need the human touch in performing the analysis.

Still other projects in the softer sciences need more people to help collect raw data that can’t be automated.

From ornithology to psychology, scientists are happy to have citizen scientists participate in collecting data—the biological sciences in particular have yet to automate data collection to the point where human observers can be dispensed with.

Cornell University sponsors an ornithology project aimed mainly at children but which is nonetheless doing real science. Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

There are also projects for experienced bird watchers of any age at Nest Watch: Where Birds Come to Life.

Start your own online science project

Using today’s social media environments you can even start up your own online scientific projects. One I would like to see carried out involves cell phone usage. This is basic observational science psychology/sociology—observing and tabulating just how many and what sort of people are glued to their cell phones while driving down the highway or weaving between adults, children, and carts in grocery store parking lots.

Questions that might be answered are:

I suspect there are many important sociological studies that could be based on these sorts of data, and the project should be started soon before Darwin takes his inevitable toll on these talk/text drivers and their passengers.

Promoting the general good

If nothing else, knowing some details about actual science being done by amateurs on the web gives you a great answer when your lady asks just what you are doing on the Internet in the wee small hours every night! 

John McCormick has written five non-fiction books, studied physics and math in various universities, and has held jobs from heavy equipment mechanic to mainframe supervisor and computer security consultant. Off and on he has also been a photojournalist for 40 plus years. He currently lives with his copy editor Beth on their organic ranch just outside the home of Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney, PA.