Citizen Science: What’s New At the Galaxy Zoo?

Whirlpool Galaxy M51 & Companion (Deep Field)

Whirlpool Galaxy M51 & Companion (Deep Field)

“No one person could have done this on their own. Even if we had managed to look through 10,000 of these images, we could have come across only a few . . . and wouldn’t have recognized them as a unique class of galaxies.”
— Caroline Cardamone, Galaxy Zoo

Prior to the last century, scientific advancement was frequently, if not primarily, the work of “gifted amateurs” – most often “gentleman of independent means” (Darwin, Newton, Lavoisier) with the time and inclination to pursue revolutionary ideas that changed irrevocably our perception of the world in which we live. It is only within the past hundred or perhaps hundred fifty years that science became a matter of institutions – of universities, governments and enterprises. And it is only with the revolutionary potential of the internet that truly popular citizen science has come to the fore as a uniquely new and powerful force for extending the realm of human understanding.

One of the most stellar examples of this new force is amply demonstrated by the remarkable successes of Galaxy Zoo. Today, Galaxy Zoo links more than 230,000 volunteer astronomers via the internet to ongoing research into the nature of the universe.

What do these volunteers do? Here’s how Galaxy Zoo describes it: “The Galaxy Zoo files contain almost a quarter of a million galaxies which have been imaged with a camera attached to a robotic telescope (the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, no less). [You can find out more about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey here.] In order to understand how these galaxies — and our own — formed, we need your help to classify them according to their shapes — a task at which your brain is better than even the fastest computer.”

One of the most important and exciting aspects of the internet is its participatory nature. And Galaxy Zoo allows anyone who has the desire to participate in making important new astronomical discoveries.

Just last year, Galaxy Zoo volunteer Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch schoolteacher, discovered a baffling new astronomical phenomenon, Hanny’s Voorwerp, which is still quite imperfectly understood (see ”The Mystery of the Voorwerp Deepens” at Galaxy Zoo). Ms. van Arkel’s reaction was that “It’s amazing to think that this object has been sitting in the archives for decades and that amateur volunteers can help by spotting things like this online. It was a fantastic present to find out on my 25th birthday that we will get observational time on the Hubble Space Telescope to follow-up this discovery.”

Hanny's Voorwerp as viewed by the Herschel telescope

Hanny's Voorwerp as viewed by the Herschel telescope

Now, another important discovery attends the efforts of Galaxy Zoo’s intrepid volunteers: a number of “compact galaxies forming stars at an incredibly high rate” dubbed ’Green Pea’ Galaxies.

If you’d like to read the full text of this discovery see Galaxy Zoo Green Peas: Discovery of a Class of Compact Extremely Star-Forming Galaxies. If you’d prefer rather a more abbreviated abstract, here it is.

To view the images of a few of these very distant “green pea” galaxies, check out the galaxy zoo blog here.

Want to participate? Or just find out exactly how it works for the volunteer participant? It’s easy. Here’s how. And here’s a basic description of the science behind the project, along with a quick one-page description of what has been accomplished to date.

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Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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