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.