Chris Meets the Zoo
Galaxy Zoo Get-Together No. 4 – Chris’s RAS Lecture in London
Greetings to all looking forward to Zoo II, and welcome to a taste of its progress. I’d like to invite you on a journey with me in spirit, to Oxford, where I went on Wednesday 11th June. I visited Chris and Kevin at their zookeeper headquarters and had a go at classifying galaxies with a lot of bits of paper and some very thought-provoking buttons.
The day before, Chris was giving the lunchtime lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society, and he and Jules arranged our fourth Galaxy Zoo Get-Together. Organisation, of course, was exemplary: I had train troubles all day; the RAS lecture theatre didn’t appear to like Chris’s laptop; Chris had assumed I’d bring my laptop to Oxford; and I had assumed that if they wanted me to bring my laptop they’d have asked. The lecture theatre was tiny. I had wondered if we’d be in the one I’d read about in Arthur Miller’s Empire of the Stars, in which a young Chandrasekhar told his audience his mathematical discovery – disbelieved at the time, 1935 – that there was an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf, and anything heavier would collapse under the force of its own gravity . . .
Chris – who wouldn’t have known at the time that most of the back row (where else?) was full of Zooites – took us on a cheerful tour of gorgeous Hubble slides, physics, and ancedotes. Hubble’s mirror, for instance, was manufactured to be so flat that if it was blown up to the size of the Gulf of Mexico, the largest bump would be ¼ of an inch high. When it turned out to have a wobble, rather than ship a new mirror up, the sensible engineers gave Hubble the equivalent of a pair of glasses, which fixed the problem! At another point, Chris said, “I haven’t got time for this slide, but I can’t resist,” and up came our favourite picture: Hanny’s Voorwerp, for which we have been given Hubble time. A soft cheer rang up from the back row! Actually I think the staff were forming quite a poor impression of us loonies, because Rick kindly saved me a seat and went out to get me when all the other latecomers had to go upstairs, and then the ten or so of us loitered around while other people queued to question Chris. We did manage not to get thrown out this time.
Astronomers clearly find excellent pubs as well as stars as part of their job description. Amidst drinks and picnic treats, Chris, after introductions, told us of some other projects taking off, inspired by the methods of Galaxy Zoo. We have set an example: citizen science does work. I wondered if this heralds an intellectual revolution. Both science and the public could soar . . . I’d spent months complaining that the science curriculum teaches children little besides how to luckily second-guess a mark scheme. Perhaps that will matter less, when everyone can do real science and talk about it together as we do. Perhaps, one day, prospective science undergraduates will not be asked “What grades did you get in school?” but “What science projects have you been involved in?” . . .
Sadly, I had to go almost as soon as I’d arrived – you’ll find out why next time.