Scientists Seek Public’s Help in Solving Ancient Riddle in Paleontology

Public is invited to identify ancient mysterious ring-like structures seen on a seabed

The photo shows both surfaces of a slab that was split open to reveal the ancient seafloor in plan view, revealing mirror images of the rings on both the upper and lower surfaces. The slab at the bottom of the picture would represent the original seafloor, with the surface shown in the upper part of the picture, which is here inverted to show its bottom side, sitting immediately on top of it. Photo credit: Hughes Lab, UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The origin of curious ring-like structures that formed half a billion years ago on a seabed in Wisconsin is an ancient unsolved riddle.

“These fascinating structures are almost perfectly circular rings, were first discovered some 30 years ago by amateur paleontologists from Madison, and have been perplexing specialists ever since. Are they the result of a physical process, or do they represent the activity of an ancient organism?” said Nigel Hughes, a professor of paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Riverside.

Hughes now invites the public to help solve the riddle.

“We are soliciting the best answers to the riddle,” he said.  “The best response will receive a cash prize of $500 – divided equally in case of multiple equally convincing suggestions.”

Not previously the subject of a formal scientific investigation, the project is designed to engage the public by using crowdsourcing and the lure of the cash prize to solicit the best potential explanations worldwide from anyone interested in how the rings formed.

The project is live on the internet on http://ringmaster.cs.ucr.edu/Rings.html under “Sourcing the Ring Master: cash prize for the best natural explanation for curious rings on an ancient seabed.”  Explanations for the origin of the rings can be posted at this site.  The project, which launched at 5 a.m., Monday, Feb. 16, will end at 4 p.m., Wednesday, March 11.  No submissions will be considered after the project has ended.

Students and employees of UC Riverside, and co-authors, friends and family members of the evaluation committee are not eligible for the prize (but are welcome to take part in the discussion).

“Paleontology is one of the few sciences in which amateurs still routinely make vital contributions to research,” Hughes explained.  “In recent months members of my lab have been looking at the Wisconsin rings and have some ideas for how they might have formed, but it struck us that using crowdsourcing to attack the problem could be of real benefit. Somewhere, someone may have seen something similar forming today or maybe the project will stimulate a creative thinker, perhaps in Africa, the Indian subcontinent or anywhere else, to come up with a flash of brilliant insight that has passed us by.”

To harness the power of the internet to widen public participation from around the globe in the scientific research, Hughes teamed up with Eamonn Keogh, a professor of computer science and engineering at UCR. Keogh, an international expert in data mining, will provide computer support and advice.  A year ago, he brought to Hughes’s attention the power of crowdsourcing to solve problems such as the Wisconsin seabed structures.

“We hope that a modest cash prize will attract attention, and perhaps particularly so in countries in which $500 would go a long way. Our aim is to generate sufficient initial interest that the project will gather steam on the reddit site, on which pages are ranked by the numbers of hits that they generate,” Keogh said.

To assist the public, Hughes and Keogh have provided notes explaining the problem and guidelines for submitting entries, along with videos about the rings – all of which can be found on http://ringmaster.cs.ucr.edu/Rings.html. The detailed information is intended to help those wishing to submit serious suggestions constrain and refine their ideas. Participants will have a chance to vote on explanations proposed by others. The UCR team will provide feedback on credible ideas as they are proposed, providing additional details and making fresh observations as necessary.

“In the end we will decide the winner very soon after the project ends,” Hughes said. “The winner won’t necessarily be the most popular explanation, but will be the natural explanation that we think provides the best fit to the data.”

The video above and the longer version included under “Related Links” below were recorded professionally by Ronald Meyer, one of the amateurs who first discovered the rings. It describes the structures and seeks to infect viewers with the pleasure of doing paleontology.

“In some ways this is a small experiment in the democratization of science,” Hughes said. “Paleontology has long been, and will continue to remain, a science in which amateurs have a key role. Without amateurs like Ron, I’d never have had the career I have had.”

Media Contact


Tel: (951) 827-6050
E-mail: iqbal@ucr.edu
Twitter: UCR_Sciencenews

Additional Contacts

Nigel Hughes
Tel: (951) 827-3098
E-mail: nigel.hughes@ucr.edu

Eamonn Keogh
Tel: (951) 827-2032
E-mail: eamonn.keogh@ucr.edu

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