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The collaborative project Citizen Sky is calling on amateur astronomers to help solve the long running of the star epsilon Auriage, a star that seemingly dims its light ever 27 years.  Scientists have some theories as to why this happens, but no confirmation as of yet (via Wired):

“The star is too bright to be observed with the vast majority of professional telescopes,” astronomer Arne Henden of the American Association of Variable Star Observers said in a press release, “so this is another area where public help is needed.”

Because the star is so bright, even the most basic equipment — including the naked eye — can provide useful data. Normally the star can be seen from fall to spring in the Northern Hemisphere, even in urban areas with lots of light pollution. But beginning this fall, epsilon Aurigae is expected to gradually dim until it has lost half its light by early winter. The star will be dim during all of 2010 and then bounce back to its usual brightness by summer 2011.

Citizen Sky participants are being asked not just to collect data on the star’s brightness, but also to join in on other aspects of the scientific process. A three-year grant from the National Science Foundation will provide funds to recruit and train a team of citizen scientists, who will be taught to analyze data, create and test their own hypotheses and even to write up their results.

Two points:

  1. High-tech, precision instruments are not, in fact, optimal for the job at hand.  In most cases, sure, but given the variables at play here low-tech instruments, such as the human eye, may be superior.  What this tells me is that we should always been thinking about the proper fit between task and technology, rather than applying the latest or most advanced technology to any problem.
  2. The effective crowdsourcing of data collection here is really interesting.  The idea that innovation is inherently social is, I think, correct.  But so too is experimentation.  In this case, the ability to solve a lingering, complex problem can be accelerated (or, more accurately made possible) through massive observation–tapping into the power of the crowd could allow scientists to collectively solve a significant mystery, and do so on a timescale that simply would not be possible compared to working in isolatio