Last month, in the midst of a wave of nonstop, breaking-news reports about President Donald Trump—the surprise firing of “nut job” James Comey, the divulgence of classified information to Russian officials inside the Oval Office, the apparent attempts to stymy an FBI investigation—Christine Beavers felt overloaded. She’d heard and seen and read enough news. So Beavers opened a new tab in her browser, pulled up a website that wasn’t Twitter, and started looking for supernovae.
Beavers, a scientist at Berkeley Lab in California, signed into Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing website that allows users, known as “citizen scientists,” to aid researchers by combing through photos from satellites and telescopes and scans of ancient texts and war diaries. The latest Zooniverse campaign, a search for the light coming from exploding stars, came online hours before The Washington Post reported Trump had shared sensitive information the U.S. received from an ally about ISIS. The Australian National University had published data from the SkyMapper telescope, and they wanted help classifying potential supernovae among the small pinpricks of light.
Beavers found herself forgetting about the news of the day as she clicked through. The work required considerably less mental bandwidth than reading the headlines. The scanning certainly requires some focus, but it’s mindless compared to the deluge of cable news and tweets. Beavers tried another campaign, asking users to classify African forest elephants, a vulnerable species, in photos taken by hidden cameras in the rainforests of Gabon. Zooniverse, like a movie or a good book, felt like another form of escapism for overwhelmed minds.
“There’s something just kind of soothing about looking at a picture, not having to do any in-depth analysis, not having to respond in an emotional way,” Beavers said. “I’m clicking, I’m scrolling, I’m not seeing horrible things. I’m just seeing images that are pleasing.”
The deeper allure of Zooniverse is the perspective it offers, if only brief, she said. The supernova campaign serves as a reminder, whether comforting or terrifying, that humanity exists on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam, as Carl Sagan once wrote. “Right now, the idea of a massive vacuum of openness and silence, when it comes to news, is very attractive,” Beavers said.
People have long looked to nature to get away from something else and reset, to experience a moment of peacefulness or awe. “It is a scientific fact,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who co-designed New York’s Central Park, wrote in 1865, “that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares … is favorable to the health and vigor of men.” Modern research has backed up his claim, showing that walking in natural landscapes can reduce depression. Users on Zooniverse are separated from natural phenomenon by a computer screen, but it provides a small dose of that distraction.
That’s why Joy Seddon turned to Zooniverse, too. Seddon, who is retired, lives in Canberra, Australia’s capital city, a world away from Washington. But bad headlines, in her own country and others, are everywhere. “I feel the world today is going through a period of monumental change and for me it is both depressing and frustrating when listening to the news, whether on TV or in the newspaper, as it is full of violence, anger and despair,” Seddon said in a message on the website. “Looking at the night sky brings beauty back into my world and lets me know there is more to living than the constant stream of bad news.”
For some, the natural world has seemed, in the heat of the moment, like a last resort in a barrage of news reports. After the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a distant star system in February, exasperated users across social media wondered, can we go there to escape what’s happening here? Could we send the president there, and maybe all of Congress, too? Stories about a mission to Mars have garnered similar responses. Some, confounded by the bad news, appear to look to the universe for answers, however unlikely. When I published a story yesterday about the detection of gravitational waves coming from two colliding black holes, someone tweeted at me, “Perhaps this is why the world is going mad? Looking for a crazy theory to soothe my aching mind.”
Like Beavers and Seddon, Scott Sutherland, a meteorologist and science writer for The Weather Network in Canada, uses Zooniverse as a distraction, supplementing video games or movies when the news siren gets too loud, even up north. “We just get inundated by the news every day,” Sutherland said. “You reach a point where you just want to step away from it.”
Sutherland has participated in other campaigns, including a search for exoplanets using data from the Kepler Space Telescope. It was a group of citizen scientists on Zooniverse that discovered the mysterious flickering of a distant star in 2015, which some astronomers believe could be signs of an alien civilization. The latest supernovae campaign has seen some success, too. The Australian National University announced last week that users discovered a star that exploded 970 million years ago, well before dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
The relief that comes from activities like searching for supernovae or elephants, or even going for a walk outside, is, ultimately, short-lived. The universe can provide only some respite before it’s time to come back down to Earth. “If we give [people] a bigger perspective of the universe, they see that maybe what’s happening on this little planet on this isolated galaxy in one single corner of this immense universe, maybe it’s not quite so overwhelming,” Sutherland said. “But we still have to pay attention to it. We can’t ignore it.”
After Trump announced Thursday that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, I asked Sutherland how he might distract himself from this latest piece of news. The thought of finding solace in science in the face of this development seemed almost eerie. “Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to retreat from this one, I just can’t,” he wrote in an email.
Beavers sounded slightly more hopeful. “I haven’t yet found refuge in internet distraction yet,” she said, explaining that she had been in a daylong meeting. “But it will come.”