Citizen Basketball

I’ve been working closely with Zookeeper Geza recently, to figure out how to provide better support for those of you who are doing your own research in addition to classifying galaxies. (Stay tuned for more on that.) In addition to being the awesome, Geza has a wonderful analogy for what we are all working together to do. I’d like to share that analogy with you in story form. A few years ago, I joined a twice-weekly lunchtime basketball game with some of the science faculty at the Hopkins Gym.

I never played competitively, but I’ve enjoyed the occasional pickup game for most of my life. Before my first pickup game at Hopkins, I thought, “This shouldn’t be too much stress – these are scientists, how good can they really be at basketball?”

What I should have thought, however, is, “these are scientists, and they are extremely hard-working and driven to succeed at everything, including basketball, so this will be some of the toughest competition I have ever played against.”

One of my opponents in that first game was a prize-winning mathematician who studies “minimal surfaces” like the ones formed by soap bubbles on wire frames – and who hit an incredible behind-the-back falling-over jump shot to win the game.

(Aside: Dr. Minicozzi once told JHU’s Arts and Science Magazine that the reason he plays basketball is that it’s the best way he knows to clear his mind. He’ll be stuck on a complex problem, and he’ll go to play a game, and when he gets back to his office, he’ll know the answer – the hard exercise helped him figure it out.)

I’ve always been a pretty good rebounder and defensive player, but a terrible shooter. Worse, over the past year, I’ve gotten so busy that I’ve almost never had time to play. But I’ve been needed to get more exercise, and I’d like to rejoin the game – so last Thursday, I went to the gym to practice my shot. The results were predictably awful: 15/100 at free throws – but at least I’m back to practicing. And that got me thinking of Geza’s analogy.

Imagine if, instead of practicing in an empty gym, all the free throws I made counted for my favorite NBA team, the Orlando Magic. Lord knows the Magic could use some help with their shooting – see 2:54 through this video – Courtney Lee misses an easy layup, and Dwight Howard’s dunk was too late. If my 15 free throws had counted in Game 1 of the NBA finals, the team wouldn’t have needed to lose in overtime – they would have won 103-88 in regulation. Someone call David Stern!  Seriously, though, there is no way my free throws would ever count. But if they would – if every free throw I made helped the Magic – wouldn’t that motivate me to go to the gym much more often?

Even more seriously, that’s exactly what we’re doing in Zooniverse. Every galaxy you classify, every supernova you find, every merger you model, every solar storm you watch – they all go directly toward an increased understanding of our universe. I can’t help the world of sports with my shooting, but you can help the world of science with your work here. And that’s a truly unique and wonderful thing.

Later today, I’m going back to the gym, and maybe I’ll imagine that I’m actually Marcin Gortat, in the new Amway Center, with the score tied and 0.2 seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA finals. And when I do, I’ll get better. Every time I take a shot, I’m getting better at basketball. Every time you log on, you’re getting better at doing science. And you don’t have to pretend – everything you do really helps.

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