A Kickstarter for science

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A crowd-funded astronomy project could help determine how to identify exoplanets with industrial chemicals in their atmospheres. The idea came from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, named after this iconic first picture of a fully illuminated Earth, which looks like — you guessed it — a blue marble. // NASA
Many of you are probably familiar with Kickstarter, the funding platform for creative projects. If you want to produce a music album but don’t have the money, you can put your idea on Kickstarter; if people like it enough, they will send you money.Well, now science projects have their own crowd-funded initiative. It’s called PetriDish, probably because scientific ideas incubate there like virulent bacteria in the lab. Matt Papas and Ilia Salzburg began this company, in their own words, as “a new way for scientists to showcase their research to the public, and for the public to show recognition to innovative researchers.”

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.


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