Saturday 10 August 2019

Citizen Science, Anxiety and Mars

Citizen Science, Anxiety and Mars

By Casey Douglass


I was browsing YouTube... well, browsing is too active a word for it really. I was looking at stuff the YouTube algorithm decided to sling my way... and I came across a video by Anton Petrov about a mysterious dimming star. As part of this video, Anton talks about citizen science, a way for non-expert people to take part in the analysis of data that is just too vast to tackle in the usual way. A site he mentioned,, looked quite enticing, and I really liked the idea of spending a bit of time now and then, helping out with some of the more space orientated projects.

That all sounds quite good, I thought. I didn’t realise however, that it would feed into my anxiety issues, and almost lead me to quit in the attempt. Not due to anything wrong with Zooniverse or how things are presented; the issues I encountered were the usual old ‘Casey’ issues. I didn’t quit though, and I’m now in a more comfortable place with it. I thought that I would write this post as a way to reinforce what I’d learned (or reminded myself of) and that maybe, someone, somewhere, might also find that interesting or be helped by it.

Once I was signed up on Zooniverse (a very quick process), I was able to browse the various projects that were looking for help. Whether I was just over-tired or just not bright enough, I was taken aback by the complexity of some of the tasks. I had a hard time choosing which one I wanted to try. I eventually settled on a project called Cosmic, an endeavour that has volunteers labelling images from Mars.

Cosmic stands for Content-based Object Summarization to Monitor Infrequent Change. Space exploration is limited by data bandwidth between the Earth and whichever equipment is being remotely controlled. Usually the camera-laden robot sends the data direct to Earth and only gathers as much data as can actually be sent. Scientists look at the results and decide where to point it next. This leads to downtime for a robot that could be put to much more use. It also isn’t conducive to the robot reacting to real-time events, such was the weather, as they happen in its environment.

The Cosmic project aims to use machine learning to train a system that will help in the development of future Mars orbital spacecraft, ones that can continuously gather and analyse data themselves, sending the most interesting stuff home first. The project on Zooniverse is designed to help with the development of this software, and it entails the volunteers inventorying pictures of various types of surface activity on Mars. At the moment, these surface features fall into a number of categories: Araneiforms (spider-like features), Trough networks, Linear features and ‘Other’. These are further split into ones with ‘deposits’ or not, and a description of the image background brightness.


I read through the background material, the tutorial, and the Field Guide that you can draw on for more help, and I unexpectedly found myself stressing and picking at things. I think I instantly put a lot of pressure on myself to make the right decision on each image, even though the FAQ explicitly states that each one will be labelled by many people, and that they would be reviewed once again before use. This should mean that multiple people would have to make the same mistake and even then, an expert would likely pick up on it before conclusions are drawn. You’d think that would have made an impression on my mind when I first read it, but I think I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Overwhelm is a pain in the backside for a tired, anxious mind (yes, minds have backsides in this post, get over it). So is being overly perfectionistic, intolerant of uncertainty and having the general urge to avoid mistakes, to be a ‘good’ person, and to not let anyone down. If you wanted to mix a head-fuck cocktail, those are some pretty potent ingredients. I was tired, I ‘tipped in’ the Field Guide sections about araneiforms, light and dark deposits, troughs and all the other stuff, and gave it a good ol’ shake. There wasn’t much room for the small mental voice that tried to get me to chill-out. I didn’t even hear it when it said “You’ve only just read all of this stuff and you expect to digest it instantly? Relax!’

I started to look at other projects, ones looking for local group clusters, gravity ripples and other kinds of research. All had their own levels of intricacy and overwhelm, and none seemed to be something that jumped out at me as ‘easier’ to get into. So I persisted with Mars. Good old Mars.

My next session of trying to give a label to photos went a little better but still ended with an exclamation of ‘Fuck it!’ and a switching of browser tab to see what was happening on Twitter. Sometimes it’s just a bad time to attempt certain things. It wasn’t until my next attempt (these attempts were on different days) that I felt more at ease. I still had the mental chatter rabbiting away about making a mistake, not being good enough, bright enough, whatever enough, but I was able to label some interesting Mars features with a little more confidence, and to also not feel too inadequate for clicking the ‘Unsure’ button a number of times.


As with most things that cause anxiety, exposing to it in small doses can gradually coax the mind into not overreacting to it, to ease off on squirting adrenaline into the body, to generally acclimatize to the discomfort you feel. I know this. I know it back to front and side to side. It still catches me out in periods where I’m extra tired, stressed, or even in times of being overly happy. Emotions are tricksy things, setting off all kinds of associations and reactions and memories. I usually pick up on it before it forces me away from something, but this time I was kept asleep at the keyboard.

Maybe if I’d been doing something more selfish I would have avoided the ‘do goody’ imperative, but I dare say I’d have just felt guilty for pissing away my time on something less worthwhile. Whatever happened, I came through it though, and that’s the main thing. I wouldn’t say I look forward to looking at pictures of Mars's surface features again, but I don’t dread it now. In time I hope to gain a little sense of achievement and of helping with something that just seems so cool to me, but for now, not wanting to pack it in is a sign of things moving in the right direction. I also hope that I’ll remember this post when I trip up again (and I will trip up again).

Thanks for reading. If you didn’t already, visit for more information about citizen science, and also visit Anton on YouTube, he makes some great space videos and is clearly passionate about the wonders of the universe.