The Seven Fundamental Forces of Citizen Science

While most people are familiar with the fundamental forces of nature - like gravity - citizen scientists get to see other, more obscure forces at work. These immutable, annoying and sometimes expletive-provoking powers are the Seven Fundamental Forces of Citizen Science:

1. The Vehicular Force: This entirely-predictable force makes its presence known when you’re on a deserted backroad in the remote bush with a normal traffic count of 0.6 vehicles per day. While observing some skittish rarity, a massive exhaust-belching logging truck, dump truck or pick-up truck hauling a bass boat the size of your first house suddenly roars out of nowhere, leaving you standing in a rarity-free cloud of dust.

2. The Linear Force: Familiar to all butterfly photographers, the Linear force causes a butterfly to always appear head on, no matter how you try to carefully reposition and contort yourself to take the shot without spooking said butterfly. The resulting pix of two little eyes and a dark line are forever unidentifiable.

3. The Calligraphic Force: My personal bugbear, this force only works on writing implements, causing them to fall out of your hand into a parallel dimension. The implement will reappear months or sometimes years later in a crevice of your car you didn’t know existed…and you may not have even been in your car when the force hit…

4. The Ventral Force: Bird photographers often see this force at work. It causes cameras to lose focus on every part of a bird except the rear end. Unfortunately, the crystal-clear detail of the rump matched with 29 pix of a puce-colored smudge in some leaves is generally still insufficient for ID.

5. The Entanglement Force: This force often strikes without warning on a nature trail or park you’ve spent years trying to visit. The force brings to your immediate location your pal EmZee, remember? OMG! We filled out a draw ticket next to one another at LeechCon '17? Did you get the 32 awesome Starling photos I emailed you? And I just saw this rock on the trail that looked like my Auntie Grace’s cat…

6. The Interruptus Force: Also known as the “Curse of Station Six,” this force causes a random entity to crash the top percentage location on your survey route, leaving you with a gaping hole where data should have lived. Documented encounters include an agitated skunk, a sudden gale-force headwind and a bad-tempered old man on a riding lawnmower.

7. The Shady Force: Most unwelcome of all, the Shady Force causes an extreme rarity to disappear as soon as you arrive…and then reappear immediately after you leave…usually at a location you’ve visited 27 times. Generally, the Shady Force also invokes a big-shot out-of-town naturalist who will find this extreme rarity during a three-minute check of the site and then spend an eternity boasting to you about it.

There are undoubtedly other citizen science forces at work. Feel free to share your experience!


8. The Bus Schedule Anomaly

Should you find yourself with spare time while waiting for a bus, and you find something of particular interest – especially if you have been searching for this species for months or years – time and space themselves will warp to bring your ride to you immediately. The level of disturbance caused by the vehicle’s arrival will be proportionate to the rarity of the species. The speed at which the vehicle will arrive is inversely proportional to how much time you would have to wait for the next bus to arrive (eg if there is a two hour gap, you can expect the bus to arrive within six to eight seconds).

  1. The two lane canyon road reality
    The target species for an entire trip is not spotted until the end on the way back to home base. Unfortunately you are traveling at high speeds down a two way canyon road with not enough shoulder to pull off to the side. You are then left speculating about whether or not you saw what you think you saw.

First backside law. Whenever you focus on a bird, it immediately turns its backside towards you.
Supplement to the first backside law: if you take pictures of a water bird, its head immediately goes down, with only its backsite sticking out of the water (at best).


Similar to the mothing equipment corollary, which is to say, the best moths of the night don’t start to appear until after you have begun to pack up your mothing setup, and more specifically, once photographic and sampling equipment are not immediately at hand.


I hear this is quite common for Penstemon in the mountain west

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too true

The Memory Lapse Force

Last summer you found many examples of an organism that was, at that point, brand new to you, in a group that you know almost nothing about. However, you were able back then to work out what it was, at least to genus.

Now suddenly you are finding it again as summer is just starting up once again in your region.

Now what is/was this organism??? Somehow there is no way that you can remember what you ID’ed it as last year, and you can’t even remember the family it was in, or perhaps not even a much higher taxa still.

Who can you ask? Who would know? Probably you have to start from scratch all over again. Patience is a virtue, so they say. Sigh.

  1. The Laundry Basket Principle: When you take a basket of wet laundry out to the yard for hanging on the line, you will invariably see an exciting or interesting insect, mammal, bird, or otherwise moving target that you have either never previously seen in your yard, or which you have seen but have never successfully photographed. This target will appear relatively stationary for the time that you are carrying the basket of laundry. At any time that you put the laundry basket down and go to get the camera, the target will resume normal functioning speed. As a result, when you return outside with the camera, the target will no longer be present, or will be beating a hasty retreat. Note that if you plan ahead and put the camera on top of the laundry in anticipation of such sightings, there will be nothing of interest whatsoever when you carry the laundry outside.

  2. The Ankle Biter Conundrum: If you frequently make observations in your own yard, and if your yard is inhabited by Allegheny mounding ants, or any other biting ant species, you will receive a painful bite to the ankle as soon as you have finished focusing the camera on an interesting target that is likely to move at any second. The resulting pain will cause you to flinch, or reach down to brush away the ankle biter (and to make sure a whole nest is not in the process of climbing your leg, because you have experienced this and do not wish to experience it again), which will invariably result in your target disappearing. This conundrum is especially prevalent when you have made every effort to ensure you are standing in an ant-free area before you set up that all-important shot.


Alas, I am more familiar than I would like to be with 1, 2, and 4.

Another odd phenomenon with which I have a certain amount of experience:

The Photographer’s Fugue State: When a photographer has the good fortune to encounter a somewhat cooperative subject–say, a dragonfly that has perched at just the right distance, or a butterfly that has miraculously decided to hold still for more than two !@*$% seconds, one may enter a strange fugue-like state of altered consciousness in which one is aware of nothing but subject and camera and the need to snap shot after shot while waiting for the subject’s minute changes of position to coalesce into the perfect photo. In this state, one is completely unaware of such things as temperature, sun, dehydration, unstable footing, or bloodsucking arthropods, until 20-60 minutes later one wakes up to a sunburned nose, soggy shoes that have sunk several inches into the mud, the beginnings of a pounding headache, at least three ticks, and 10-20 mosquito bites. But at least there’s a chance one of those 200 shots will be perfect!


wow that is so relatable

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  1. The punishment principle : when you find a butterfly that u have never seen before,it files away from you. If you try to get to it no matter what,you will get the pic u desired but u will also recieve a punishment. As a personal example,when i finally got close to this butterfly after folowing it for 45 minutes,i had to bend way down to get the pic(i was on an elevated platform and it was in a small trough) i bent too hard that my pants got ripped apart :sweat_smile:. so i did get a good pic but also got punished at the same time.
  1. The Heisenberg blurriness principle

delta_sub * delta_eq = const.


delta_sub = the blurriness you get in your picture because the subject is moving or won’t let you come near
delta_eq = the bluriness you get because of the limitations of you equipment, roughly anti-proportional to equipment price

In practical terms this means any rare / hard to photograph species may turn up right in front of you and stand perfectly still, if and only if all you have with you is a crappy old smartphone. See:


The Eternal Recurrence of Inanimity (aka Camouflage Conundrum; Identificatory Overdrive): You have learned, Grasshopper, to see the beetle camouflaged as caterpillar dropping, the caterpillar posing as stick, the hopper as thorn, the moth slyly painted in perfect facsimile of dead leaf, the gecko colored like bark (so much so that you shook your head in disbelief or squealed with delight), the mantis decked out head to toe as lichen, the flounder with scales like a sand bank and the cephalopod a cinema of whatever it happened to be passing, creatures turned over millions of years into images of anything and everything but themselves–and having gone a bit batty squinting at these things to ferret out the hidden lives, you will, full of hope, discern: oh, actual poop again. See also Tick or Freckle?


Gorgeous, though! That one would have killed my back, tool

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The Dog Corollary of The Vehicular Force When you line up a shot near the ground or in a marsh, your dog, which has been happily sniffing around behind you, runs past the target or stops to see what you are doing. Either way, the target vacates area, never to be seen again.


The Butterfly Effect Applicable to all flying things. The butterfly comes up from the grass and flits around erratically. The observer can visually track the butterfly which always seems to be about to land, but then it ups and vanishes. Soaring birds do this with much more rapidity, not matter how hard you run.


Forward Pull Phenomenon

When walking with non-iNaturalist-users you have enticed into going on nature walks with you, the demanding force of their desire to move on has been known to physically rend you from whatever subject you find. Although it is hitherto poorly studied, naturalists theorise that the impatience of walking partners creates a temporary gravitational pull. As you orbit them, you find that you cannot take the crisp representative photos you wished you could. You also finish the walk with a small fraction of your average photo count.


I like dogs and own dogs but I never want them near me when I’m doing nature photography. For every animal they flush from the underbrush that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen, I’m sure they scare off several others. Plus the distraction of having to keep an eye on them so they don’t get in trouble.


To be fair to my dog Finn, the only animal that he has flushed was a fox. Which I got a picture of -
I know him - he’s harmless. He mainly looks for dead things to eat. The distraction is another issue!