We are seeing a fascinating shift in science away from scientists being isolated from society. An avenue is now opening up in which anyone can contribute to doing fundamental scientific research.
One of the more famous examples of a citzen science project is the “Galaxy Zoo,” in which any child or adult in any location can look at pictures of galaxies and categorize them by shape. The citizen can classify as many galaxies as he/she wants, take as much time to do it as suits the individual, and will stop when he/she runs out of time or loses interest. There is a training up process involved, and most people will probably improve in both their answer and efficiency over time.
Some people will even get the answers flat out wrong. This is okay as in this case there is a comfort in numbers. More than 10,000 people will be classifying each and every galaxy, so the aggregate answer of the crowd will still be correct. Note there is the possibility that some individuals will deliberately miscategorize the galaxy shapes. A bit of such mischievous behavior is also okay, as long as most people do their best to give the right answer.
The benefit of the Galaxy Zoo ‘assignment,’ or with any citizen science project, is to allow everyone to have fun with astronomy while at the same time learning a bit about the range of morphological properties of galaxies. The benefit of the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project to professional astronomers is to learn how galaxy shape depends on environment, redshift, and other properties.
We have learned, for example, that if a galaxy has many other nearby galaxies, or neighbors, then it is much more likely to be a football-shaped elliptical galaxy than if a galaxy is isolated. This is a completely new approach to doing science, and we will likely see many more such projects in the future.