After a far-t00-long hiatus, Melle & Andrew and I made it to a Perimeter lecture. This month’s was “The Science of Galaxy Zoo” with Chris Lintott, Oxford. It was teh awesome!
Lintott is most definitely a practical physicist. Lintott is one of c o-authors of Bang: The Complete History of the Universe, along with Patrick Moore and Brian May (\m/) of Queen fame. But at the lecture, he was here to talk about the Galaxy Zoo.
What is it? Basically, with all of the telescopes taking pictures out there, we ended up with about 1 MILLION galaxy picture that hadn’t been catalogued. And the average physics student could do only several thousand, and the average physics prof would spend a lifetime studying about 100 of them. So they went to the rabble.
The Galaxy Zoo is a fun game where anyone who passes the test can get in there and classify galaxies – it’s like a cool video game but with spirals and discs! They calculated that it might take 5 years for the public to get through the pictures – but thanks to a fortuitous mention on the Beeb, it took about 3 weeks to get most of them done :) And in the new version, you can also classify supernovae.
Lintott has an irreverent attitude toward all things stodgy, but more importantly, he also has a populist view toward science. Because just like we have a gazillion pictures of galaxies that haven’t been viewed by humans, there are the supernovae and will be other scientific data from the oceans, from the deserts, from… and Lintott believes we’ll see more of this populist integration into scientific research. Other than the fact that this means geeks and grandmas the world over will get repetitive stress injuries in their contributions to science, it is a pretty awesome concept.
The humans can carry the heavy load on sorting, and then if something interesting comes up, an alert can go to the geeks at the telescopes for follow-up and if it’s interestinger, one guy will call another guy who will just happen to take a picture of the galaxy in question… or maybe get Hubble pointed at that baby. It’s the integration of the human perspective and the automated and powerful talents of the computers that will really propel the science forward.
No worries that the computers will ever overtake what humans can do. Lintott says one of the joys of zoos is that public observers have been able to uncover some interesting anomalies. Case in point: The Zoo project got an email from Hanny, a schoolteacher in the Netherlands, reporting on something called Hanny’s Voorwerp – a gaseous cloud near a galaxy that looks like, well, a cosmic frog:
She wanted to know what the hell the cosmic green from was, and so did the physicists. She got Hubble time, man. It was only after they had published in the journals that the physicists figured out that Voorwerp roughly translates to “thingy”, but it’s official now: http://www.hannysvoorwerp.com/
We were totally waiting for Lintott to comment on Hubble taking a look at Hanny’s thingy, but he didn’t go there. At least in public.
I’m off to classify me some galaxies. You should too.