Tag Archives: Royal Society

Three centuries of citizen science

To mark the birthday of Philosophical Transactions, Roger Highfield surveys the history of citizen science, which dates back much further than many realise.

Even though the term ‘citizen science’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary last year, the practice is several centuries old, as quickly becomes evident when thumbing through back issues of the oldest journal dedicated to science.

Philosophical Transactions, which celebrates its 350th birthday on 6 March, has plenty of evidence of citizen science that dates back long before the 20th century, before the internet put terabytes of data at our fingertips, long before TV and long before even  the term ‘scientist’ was coined in 1833.

Three centuries ago, in 1715, Edmund Halley used Philosophical Transactions to ask colleagues to help him observe a total solar eclipse, prompting observers from all over the country to respond.

Halley eclipse table. Credit: Royal Society

Halley’s solar eclipse observations printed in Philosophical Transactions. Credit: Royal Society

When in 1749, crowds gathered in Green Park in London to watch the great firework display of King George II, a 20 year old Fellow of the Royal Society,  Benjamin Robins, published an appeal in the Gentleman’s Magazine to ask people to help record this spectacle of the age, which he reported in Phil Trans.

Due in great part to the complex instructions devised by Robins (citizen scientists take note), only one report was sent in, from a Welshman some 140 miles away who couldn’t see individual fireworks, but upon seeing flashes, reckoned that the pyrotechnics were a waste of money.


Creature surveys date back a long time. When Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he browsed popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents (a project to compare this approach with today’s citizen science  is now under way by Chris Lintott and Sally Shuttleworth at Oxford, with Gowan Dawson in Leicester.)

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1900, is but one example of a long-standing tradition which has persisted to the present day. Butterfly counts are another example, with schemes starting in the UK and North America in the mid 1970s.

Various wildlife surveys were also conducted by MegaLab, a project that began with the BBC and Daily Telegraph in 1995, using mass media and phone lines to earn the ‘mega’ prefix. Some projects were citizen science in the strict sense defined by the OED (‘‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions’). Others invited a broader form of citizen engagement, where a mass audience provided test subjects to further understanding of the human body and mind.

The first experiment, which was in the latter category, was conducted with Prof Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire. We used national television, radio and press (BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World, BBC Radio One and The Daily Telegraph, where I was science editor) to test whether it is easier to detect lies in print, radio or TV.

A million call attempts were made but, due to overload, we only recorded data on 40,000. In the journal Nature, Richard Wiseman reported that the radio listeners detected the lies 73.4% of the time, the newspaper readers 64.2% and the television viewers 51.8%.

MegaLab and its successor, Live Lab, continued to do dozens of mass experiments, from counting stars to measure light pollution to studying the Mozart effect, working with popularisers, such as Simon Singh, Raj Persaud and Andrew Cohen, and doctors and scientists, from Simon Baron Cohen to David Perrett  and  Jim Levine. Other papers emerged from the experiments, for instance this survey of the extent to which Antipodean flatworms had invaded the UK, and one by Richard Wiseman on public participation

The web extends the reach of scientists engaging with citizens, and in many different ways. One was to harness idle computer processing power, as with seti@home, which helps look for extraterrestrial intelligence, or a DIY climate forecasting project that I launched in The Daily Telegraph.

The web could also help reach out to an audience. MegaLab used the web to conduct Turing tests, for example, and there are many more examples of internet based projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, which asks for help in classifying images of distant galaxies, and the fold.it site, which runs a game to fold the structure of selected proteins as well as possible.

The web also allowed an intelligence test to be undertaken worldwide in 2010 by New Scientist, which I edited at the time, with Adrian Owen, now at the University of Western Ontario, and colleagues. Some 110,000 people took part and the findings challenged the idea of IQ and led to a paper in the journal Neuron.

Another substantial citizen science project – #hookedonmusic – was created by computational musicologists at the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University. The project has been run by Wellcome Trust public engagement fellow Erinma Ochu and the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester to investigate the science of songs which may have implications for future research into dementia. To date there have been 175,000 players of #HookedonMusic, reviewed here, across 199 countries and research papers are expected based on its findings.


The range of citizen science is expanding. To prove that you don’t have to be an adult to do original science, children from a Primary School in Blackawton, Devon, published the results of an experiment on how bees forage for food in different coloured flowers in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2010.

Working with Royal Society Research Fellow, Beau Lotto, they came up with a question, made simple observations about simple phenomena, and discovered  ‘bees use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which flower to forage from.’ Gratifyingly they also discovered that ‘science is cool and fun.’ Lotto also ran a laboratory at the Science Museum from late 2010 to the spring of 2012 called, appropriately enough, Lotto Lab.

The museum, through its Lates and Live Science program, has offered many other researchers a chance to experiment on the museum’s three million plus visitors each year. Subjects tackled over the past 15 years range from face scans for surgeons in Great Ormond Street Hospital to gait analysis with Oxford Brookes,  synaesthesia with Sussex, and risk-taking with UCL.

Various papers have been published as a result of experiments on visitors, for instance on self recognition and also the way groups behave and crowd behaviour, explored in our ZombieLab event. We are currently running a taste experiment (you can take part here) devised by food scientist Charles Spence from Oxford University, with the support of chef Heston Blumenthal.

Citizen scientists can now build and operate their own instruments to gather data for their own experiments or as part of a larger project. There are robotic telescopes that they can operate. Nasa gave one group permission to attempt to activate a 35 year old satellite. They can contribute to mathematics projects too.

And, no doubt, a range of new technologies, such as cheap open source computing power from the Raspberry Pi and Arduino, drones and 3D printing, will aid the long, remarkable and productive rise of the citizen scientist.

The Royal Society is  marking the anniversary of Philosophical Transactions with the launch of a series of short films, special issues of the journal, an exhibition and other activities.

Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs, Science Museum, and a member of the Royal Society’s Inspiring Stories committee.

Story of the Search for the Higgs Boson wins Royal Society Prize

Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer, blogs on the latest winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Theoretical physicist, presenter and author, Sean Carroll, has won the world’s most prestigious science book prize, with his story of the search for the elusive Higgs boson.

Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe (OneWorld Publications) was announced as the winner of the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books last night at the Royal Society in London.

The £25,000 prize was awarded by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning President of the Royal Society, with comedian and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain hosting the event. Speaking after winning the prize, Carroll said, “I feel enormous gratitude towards the thousands of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider and the millions of people who express their love for science everyday!”

This is a timely win for Caroll, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 and last month’s Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert for their theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson. The Science Museum is also telling the story of the world’s greatest experiment and the hunt for the Higgs boson in a new exhibition, Collider.

Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking in the Collider exhibition.

Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking in the Collider exhibition.

Judges for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books included impressionist Jon Culshaw, novelist Joanne Harris, journalist Lucy Siegle and Dr Emily Flashman, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at University of Oxford.

The panel was chaired by Professor Uta Frith DBE FBA FRS, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, who described the book as “an exceptional example of the genre and a real rock star of a book.” Frith went on to explain, “Though it’s a topic that has been tackled many times before, Carroll writes with an energy that propels readers along and fills them with his own passion. There’s no doubt that this is an important, enduring piece of literature.”

Carroll’s telling of ‘the greatest science story of our time saw off strong competition from a riveting shortlist of authors:

  • Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead, published by Bloomsbury
  • The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll, published by OneWorld Publications
  • Cells to Civilizations by Enrico Coen, published by Princeton University Press
  • Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough, published by Profile Books
  • The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, published by Granta
  • Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books)

If you would like to read more of these books, the Royal Society have published the first chapter of each book here.

Now in its 25th year, the book prize is sponsored by investment management company Winton Capital Management (supporters of our Collider exhibition). David Harding, Founder and Chairman of Winton Capital Management commented, “Sean Carroll’s book is a fascinating account of an inspiring scientific experiment that has brought thousands of people from different countries together to pursue knowledge in a collective way.”

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard testing the first British Jet engine

Fuelling Prosperity

A guest blog post by Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Director Programmes and Fellowship, Royal Academy of Engineering on science and its impact on the UK economy.

The UK has a proud track record of research excellence. We are responsible for 14 of the top 100 medicines in use today (second only to the USA) and have developed technology found in 95% of the world’s mobile phones. Thanks to previous sustained investment we have the most productive research base of the world’s leading economies and our researchers have claimed over 90 Nobel Prizes.

The recent Great British Innovation Vote showed the impact and diversity of our achievements over the last century – and many exciting new developments just opening up, from ionic liquids and graphene to hypersonic planes and quantum dots.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency.

Quantum dots can be ‘tuned’ to release photons of light at a given frequency. Image credit: Nanoco Industries Ltd.

Many of the great challenges that we face – like food security, climate change, energy security and the impacts of ageing – require expertise and collaboration right across the humanities, social, engineering, physical, medical, chemical, biological and mathematical sciences. Responding to climate change, for example, requires an understanding of both the scientific evidence and the engineering approaches to tackle it plus the socioeconomic effects and how they interact.

So efficient is our research system that it achieves world-leading results despite the government spending less on research than our competitors do. The UK government spent just 0.57% of GDP on research and development in 2011, in comparison to 0.85% in Germany and 0.92% in the USA.

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard testing the first British Jet engine

Frank Whittle, G B Bozzoni and H Harvard conducting research and testing on the first British-designed Jet engine

This week the UK’s four national academies – the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society – are together asking the government not to take this success for granted. Fuelling Prosperity explains why continued investment in R&D is essential to rebalancing the UK economy. Listen here to an interview with Sir Paul Nurse on this report. 

The Academies wish to see a stable 10 year investment framework for research, innovation and skills, which should sit at the heart of its emerging industrial strategy and plans for growth.

The science budget is essential to the future economic development of the country and it should continue to be ringfenced to ensure that our highly efficient research system is well resourced. Science, research and engineering should continue to inform policy making across Whitehall.

The Academies want the UK to provide a world class research and innovation environment that is attractive to talent and investment from industry and from overseas and that inspires and supports the next generation of researchers.

Yes, (Science) Minister

By Robert Bud, Keeper of Science and Medicine

The science ministers may change, but problems endure. The single issue that most preoccupies thinking about science research policy has remained constant for more than two decades: what policies will best support translation of laboratory brainwaves into commercial success for UK PLC.

The perennial problems of turning scientific excellence into commercial success without damaging the research base was the central issue discussed at a remarkable gathering of the individuals who have been in charge of British science since the early 1990s, held at the Science Museum and cosponsored by the Mile End Group of Queen Mary University of London, and the Royal Society.

The Minister responsible for science, David Willetts MP, was joined by Lord Waldegrave, Science Minister from 1992-1994 (and former Chair of Trustees of the Science Museum) and Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science 1998-2006 in an event chaired by the historian Lord Hennessy.

Before them was a who’s who of the British scientific establishment, including the current Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington and his predecessors, Sir Bill Stewart, and Lord May. There were former vice-chancellors too, Sir John Ashworth (Salford and LSE), Sir Alan Wilson (Leeds), Sir Roger Williams (Reading) and the current VC of Queen Mary University of London, Simon Gaskell. Others guests included Sir Walter Bodmer who chaired the first committee to explore Public Understanding of Science and Sir Geoffrey Allen, founding Secretary of the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1981.

The problems of managing science have not fundamentally changed in half a century, and David Willetts emphasised continuity between Lord Waldegrave’s White Paper “Realising our Potential” (1993), Lord Sainsbury’s “Race to the Top” (2007) and Willetts’ current concerns with helping British industry avoid the ‘Valley of Death, where projects are considered too embryonic for industry to fund and too commercial to be backed by the research councils.

David Willetts emphasised his belief that greater American success in taking university innovations to market was the result of better American government support measures than any cultural differences. Innovations by American scientists receive support at an earlier stage from American government measures than their British counterparts, which enables the US industry to take lower risks when delivering a novel technology to a market. But a note of warning and wise advice based on hard experience was given by Lord Waldegrave, who commented that put scientists and politicians too close together nearly always ends in catastrophe. Lord Sainsbury pointed out that offering to contribute to solving the problems that bedevil the Treasury is a better approach to the extraction of resources than demanding support.

Lord Sainsbury questioned the assumption that public knowledge of science would lead to the public boosting its appetite for science. However, Sir Walter Bodmer pointed out that his committee never believed that widespread knowledge of science would equal public understanding of it, but was rather a prerequisite. This distinction had got lost subsequently. Regulation also has a role, with Sir John Ashworth pointing out the role of research-supported standards and regulation was one way to ensure the best quality in industry.

The speakers vigorously agreed that it was in the interest of British industry to have strong government funded research institutes in a landmark meeting that distilled some of the basic truths to emerge from science policy over the past few decades.

A number of tweets from the night have been storified and a transcript of the entire meeting will be mounted in a blog to follow soon.

James Gleick

The Information wins science book prize

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

The bestselling author, James Gleick, has won the world’s most prestigious science book prize with his revelatory chronicle of how information has become the defining quality of the modern age.

Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Fouth Estate) was announced as the winner of the £10,000 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society in London.

James Gleick

The bestselling author James Gleick was announced as the winner of the £10,000 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society, London

Gleick, who spent seven years working on the book, said he was surprised, and startled in an event at the society chaired by the comedian, actor and popular science writer, Ben Miller, and broadcast by Tom Clarke of Channel 4 news.

After thanking his agent, editor and wife, the New York born journalist remarked on how, unlike researchers who write popular science books, he felt like he was an outsider with his ‘face pressed against the glass.’

The veteran American writer made a huge debut with his first book, Chaos (1987), an international bestseller which provided insights into the apparent disorder in complex systems and made everyone aware of the extraordinary influence of the ‘butterfly effect.’ Since then he has written Pulitzer-Prize shortlisted biographies of two heroes of science, Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton.

Gleick’s latest work tells the story of information, from the theory of information proposed by American Claude Shannon to the current revolution in biological information, replicated and transmitted in the form of DNA since the origin of life, and the tsumani of data that now engulf us to become the very quintessence of 21st century society.

Along the way the reader encounters many figures that are also celebrated in the Science Museum, such as Charles Babbage, inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Lovelace, the dazzling daughter of the poet Byron, who became the first true programmer, and Alan Turing, who lay the foundations of modern computing and cracked both the codes of nature and the Nazi war machine.

The stories behind the revolutions that created today’s information age will also form the core of a forthcoming multi-million pound gallery, Making Modern Communications, scheduled to open in the museum in 2014.

The judges on this year’s judging panel included the authors Jasper Fforde and Tania Hershman, BBC Commissioning Editor for Science Kim Shillinglaw and Royal Society University Research Fellow Samuel Turvey. The panel was chaired by Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who said the decision was difficult, though unanimous. “The Information “an ambitious and insightful book that takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers. It is one of those very rare books that provide a completely new framework for understanding the world around us.”

The prize, award by Society president Sir Paul Nurse, saw off strong competition from a heavyweight shortlist:

• Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), on his quest to understand human memory.

• My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank, published by Oneworld, a personal perspective on personal genetics

• The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which explores parallel universes and the laws of the cosmos.

• The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent over the millennia.

• The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which examines the world of viruses and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic and how to remain ahead of the threat.

Sir Paul remarked that there had been a renaissance of science writing and admitted it was a ‘pity that someone had to win.’ Despite the lack of British writers on the shortlist, many were present in the audience, including Armand Leroi, Tim Radford, Jo Marchant, Martin Rees, Stuart Clark, Helena Cronin, Philip Ball, Graham Farmelo, Alex Bellos and Jim Al-Khalili.

Set up in 1988 as the “Science Book Prizes”, it became the Rhône-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books from 1990 – 2000, then became the Aventis Prizes for Science Books from 2001 – 2006 and the Royal Society Prize for Science Books from 2007 – 2010. Now in its 25th year, the book prize is now sponsored by the global investment management company Winton Capital Management. David Harding, Founder and Chairman , congratulated James Gleick as ‘ a worthy winner in a strong field’ and thanked the shortlisted authors for helping to turn the sea of scientific information into knowledge.

Roger Highfield is an author, editor of book shortlisted for the prize in 2008 (A Life Decoded by Craig Venter) and Director of External Affairs of the Science Museum Group.

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Heroes of Science

“If science is to inspire, engage and thrive, it needs its heroes more than ever.” This was the key message from Dr. Roger Highfield, our Director of External Affairs, and this year’s recipient of the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal, at his Royal Society lecture ‘Heroes of Science’ earlier this week.

Modern science is now so often a global collaborative effort, with thousands of researchers joining forces on gigantic scientific undertakings such as the Large Hadron Collider, ENCODE and the Polymath Project. As research teams have become the norm in scientific discovery, many are asking is modern science is too big for heroes?

The ENCODE display at the Science Museum

Roger disagrees, arguing in his lecture (and in this Daily Telegraph article) that “it would be a disaster if we provided an uninspiring vision of scientific advance as a relentless march of an army of ants.” The likes of Isaac Newton or Marie Curie, who won two Nobel prizes before dying due to prolonged radiation exposure, provide inspirational stories of scientific discovery, and these stories continue to this day through figures such as Peter Higgs, Craig Venter and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

These scientists would never claim to have worked alone, but this is often how they are portrayed. In the crowded realm of ideas, heroes are often the most viral transmitters of the values of science. Our fascination with heroes could perhaps be explained by recent brain scan studies by Francesca Happé and colleagues in London, which show the existence of a hard-wired fondness for narratives in us all.

EEG hat

An EEG hat, used to measure brain activity

Roger ended his lecture with a final thought on the use of metaphors to convey complex ideas, noting that by the same token, heroic characters who appreciate scientific discovery are needed to express a vivid sense of the way science works.

The Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar lecture is given annually on a subject relating to the history, philosophy or social function of science. The accompanying Medal is named in memory of three Fellows of the Royal Society, John Desmond Bernal, Peter Medawar, and John Wilkins, the first Secretary of the Society. Previous recipients of the Medal include Melvyn Bragg, who lectured on the history of the Royal Society, and Professor David Edgerton, who discussed twentieth century science and history.