A donation to a project earns the donor some kind of reward, ranging from an electronic copy of the eventually published paper to a stay at a coffee farm in northern Honduras with the head researcher. Many of the other rewards (such as an album of pictures the scientists took or a mention in the acknowledgements of the paper) are meant to give donors a sense of connection to the research. I think it’s a great idea; as national funding for science becomes harder to come by, it’s important for scientists to reach out to the public and say, “This is what we’re doing. We’ll tell you all about it! We think it’s awesome and important. If you think it’s awesome and important, help support us.” It works for comic books and video games and documentaries — why not for physics and biology and astronomy?
And there is an astronomy project on PetriDish: “Do aliens use hairspray?” Scientists at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science are interested in the unconventional ways we could detect life on other planets. “Future telescopes will be able to examine the atmospheres of [other] planets to search for signs of life,” their project page says. “On Earth, (per)chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are entirely artificial (man-made) chemical molecules that accumulate in our atmosphere, and are strong greenhouse gases. There are no known natural processes that can create chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, which makes them a great candidate as ‘biosignature.’ CFCs can be easily recognized in planetary atmospheres because their atmospheric ‘fingerprint’ (i.e. chemical spectra) is very different from natural elements, and are a telltale sign that life on the surface has advanced industrial capabilities.”
The project will first ask the question, “How would our world look from many light-years away, and what about it would say, ‘Intelligent life lives there’?” and then will work toward identifying those “biosignatures” in exoplanets.
I think PetriDish is an innovative idea, and I think it could support a lot of innovative ideas. Check it out, check out Blue Marble Space (where they love Carl Sagan, by the way), and consider getting yourself a trip to that coffee farm in Honduras.