We tend to make assumptions about what scientists are like - nerdy, obsessed types who wear glasses and who prize logic over emotion.
In an effort to break the stereotype of the staid, reclusive science guys, advocates are pushing to get average citizens involved in the scientific process through the use of communications and data analysis technologies that are getting cheaper and faster by the minute.
The most impressive of these projects is EarthWatch (www.earthwatch.org). Composed of 75,000 volunteers in over 130 countries, EarthWatch pairs interested volunteers with scientists who are studying our rapidly changing environment.
With minimal training, participants can wander through rain forests in Vietnam itemizing butterfly species with a digital camera or help geographers create maps of water resources in Kenya using GPS systems and satellite imagery.
Observant scuba divers have tracked the destruction of coral reefs worldwide by recording what they see with underwater cameras that send images to a central database over a wireless connection on a waiting boat.
Another exemplary institution dedicated to organizing amateur scientists is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bird enthusiasts, traditionally armed with binoculars, have added personal digital assistants (PDAs) to their toolkit, allowing them to instantaneously transmit observations to growing databases designed to aid ornithologists in tracking bird population and migration patterns. Amateur birdwatchers contributed greatly to monitoring the spread of the West Nile virus over the past few summers.
The availability of relatively cheap, powerful home computers is putting science back in the hands of the people. Scientists daunted by the task of sifting through terabytes of data have developed programs like the SETI@home project, which allows users to scour radio wave signals with a downloaded screen-saver for signs of extra-terrestrial life. This notion of "collective computing" is now being used to assemble complex DNA proteins, a task that would take a single person a lifetime.
Here in Toronto, the Ontario Science Centre has recently started an outreach program of its own in an effort to demystify science, part of a $40-million initiative called Agents of Change.
"It's not enough to just raise awareness about science," says astronomer and space scientist Sara Poirier. "We need to give people opportunities to contribute themselves."
One of the projects currently in development would require the help of thousands of bicyclists in the city, equipped with simple carbon monoxide detectors strapped to their handlebars. These detectors would send information over a wireless network dedicated to tracking daily and regional fluctuations in air quality.
"Air quality is currently only measured at a few sites around the city," says Poirier."But levels of carbon monoxide can change throughout the day with weather, construction or traffic flow." With the click of a mouse, concerned commuters could check continuously updated pollution readings, much as we do now with weather reports.
"But the underlying goal isn't to determine carbon monoxide levels in Toronto - it's to engage people in the scientific process," says Poirier.
Enter a new era of the citizen scientist.
StarWatch, one of the Ontario Science Centre's new citizen science projects, allows volunteers to contribute to studies on the spread of light pollution in the province.