Zoology


Like the HiRise satellite in orbit around Mars, Galaxy Zoo is a serious scientific endeavour that has a crowd-sourcing aspect allowing the common man to have a hand in the exploration of the cosmos. The University of Oxford, to their credit, saw a unique opportunity in something that seemed utterly impossible, manually compiling a catalogue of millions of galaxies.

The problem was, we can scan the heavens so well and so fast that there simply aren’t enough trained astronomers to categorize all the galaxies that are out there. Galaxies, it seems, are a dime a dozen. In fact, with an estimated two hundred billion to five hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe, they’re a dime a billion. Computers can count them, but their shapes and the angles on which we see them make it nigh on impossible for a computer to categorise them. There clearly aren’t enough astronomers to tackle the task, although, wouldn’t it be nice if there were billions of astronomers, and so the university did what no government department would ever do, it asked the public for help with Galaxy Zoo.

Zoouniverse is an extension of the Galaxy Zoo civilian scientist program, asking for our help with a number of other crowd-source projects:

  • Categorizing galaxies
  • Exploring the surface of the moon to categorize craters, identify old weathered craters, spot irregular geological features and, perhaps, stumble upon Apollo landing sites
  • Assist in understanding how galaxies merge
  • Search for supernova in distant galaxies
  • Help Kepler in the search for planets around other stars (highly recommended)
  • Assist in identifying the formation of new stars in nebula
  • Find possible targets in the asteroid belt for the New Horizons probe to explore
  • Categorise solar storms raging across the surface of our sun
  • Model climate change from records made by the British Royal Navy
  • Gather information to assist in the study of ancient Greek ruins
  • Categorize whale calls

In short, there’s something in the zoo for the whole family. I sat with my two girls for about an hour tonight, going through galaxies, looking at their subtle differences, pointing out irregular shapes, bars in the core, and two wonderful examples of gravitational lensing.

Crowd-sourcing is an interesting phenomena. Essentially, it says all of us are smarter than any one of us individually. You or I may not be geniuses, but, pool our thinking together and, hey, presto, genius. And there are hundreds of crowd-sourcing projects exploiting this immense resource pool we call humanity.

Got some spare time on your hands? Fancy looking at some photos of the heavens? Instead of surfing the net, why not surf the stars?

Be sure to check out the Galaxy Zoo and the Zooniverse as a whole, and give science in the 21st century a helping hand.

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6 thoughts on “Zoology

  1. I like the concept. The Wikipedia list is also quite impressive, Wikipedia being a prime example itself. How does NASA ensure the accuracy of the contributions they receive to prevent dodgy data, unintentional or malicious? Wikipedia has a great peer-review mechanism, did they implement something similar?

    • Unlike wikipedia, there’s no real threat of malicious data, one would hope. From what I understand Galaxy Zoo uses an average of responses, ensuring every galaxy has several sets of eyes running over it. Where there’s a split vote, with say 10 people calling something a spiral galaxy and 12 people calling something a barrel galaxy, they’ll get some professional eyes involved, but if all 22 call it a spiral, they’ll be content with that.

  2. Just a small comment (I’m a scientist working with Galaxy Zoo). It’s not run by NASA – it was originally set up and is still run out of Oxford University in the UK. The first data we used was from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (although it’s currently using data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope). But otherwise great article, and thanks for the support.

    pcawdron explained very well why we can trust the classifications so well.

    • Karen, thanks for the clarification, I’ve updated the article accordingly. My 11 yr old daughter and I spent almost an hour this evening categorising galaxies, talking about galactic collisions, discussing gravitational lensing, looking at the moon, etc. The zoo is such a great way to get kids excited about science.

  3. Really pleased to see this! (I moderate the Galaxy Zoo discussion forum.)

    In Galaxy Zoo 1, according to the paper, there were 36 possible malicious users. There were various ways to spot them: for example, had they classified the same galaxy 6 or more times? (People who kept doing that had all their results automatically chucked out.) Or: were their classifications consistently massively different from everyone else’s? From what I remember, they tried a weighting system: giving more weight to those whose results were more in line with everyone else’s – but when they tried a weighted result and a non-weighted result there was no statistical significance. (Correct me if I’m wrong here. It’s 3 years since I read that paper.)

    Also, the nice thing is, besides very few people having any possible reason to be malicious – if you see different things from other people, you may be right. Not all galaxies fit neatly into the strict categories like spiral and elliptical. The Hubble tuning fork may be a continuum rather than a system, for example – and may be only a loose, convenient definition. If nine people see an elliptical but a tenth sees some disruption, the tenth person might just be right . . . and if ten people all say different things about a galaxy, it might be worth checking it out – or just having it on record that some galaxies aren’t classifiable at all.

    Feel free to come to the forum any time, I’ll show you around! Thanks for such a lovely write-up.

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