Where’s Waldo Goes to Outer Space

There’s a long excerpt from Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist posted at Medium. This is taken from Chapter 4, and discusses pattern-matching games, astronomy, and citizen science:

While such books may seem like merely an amusing diversion for children, the mental process involved in finding Waldo and his friends in Handford’s elaborate drawings is remarkably sophisticated.
There are multiple web sites and academic papers devoted to computer algorithms for locating Waldo within Handford’s drawings, using a variety of software packages, and these are impressively complex, running to hundreds of lines of code and invoking sophisticated image-processing tools. Child’s play, this is not.

The essential element of these books is pattern matching, looking for a particular arrangement of colors and shapes in the midst of a distracting field. There are numerous more “adult” variations on this game, some of them obvious, like the image-based “hidden object” puzzle games Kate sometimes plays for relaxation, or the classic video game Myst. Other classes of games may not seem directly connected, but use the same pattern-finding tricks, such as solitaire card games like Free Cell (my own go-to time-waster) or colored-blob-matching games like the massively popular Candy Crush. In all of these, the key to the game is spotting a useful pattern within a large collection of visual data. This is a task at which human brains excel, and millions of people do it for fun and relaxation.

The unmatched ability of humans to spot meaningful patterns in visual data is the basis for many scientific discoveries, in all sorts of different fields.

Probably no field has benefitted more from pattern-matching than astronomy, though, with many of the field’s most important and unusual discoveries having their origin in the spotting of an odd pattern.

(This is my favorite of the published excerpts, because I did the edit myself…)