The State of the Zoo
I was going to write another history post about the early days of the zoo to mark today’s anniversary. After all, it was around now – 9.30am – on July 11th that I realised just what we’d done, as our server went down under the pressure and email after email after email arrived in our inbox complaining about it – or helpfully pointing out that we had technical problems. For someone who thought that this project might be a spare time occupation it was a rude awakening and the story of the last year has in some sense been a struggle to catch up.
Those early days have been rehashed often enough, though, and I should save the best lines for public talks anyway. Let me use this chance, then, to give you a State of the Zoo report. Apologies first; the development of Zoo 2 has been slower than any of us would like, delayed not quite by hell and high water but by almost everything else. The designs and most of the coding are done, and – barring further hiccups – we’re a matter of a week or two away from releasing it to beta testing. First access will be given to those who help us out with a survey, so watch this space.
The delays are particularly embarrassing when compared to the speed with which Waveney responded to our call for help reclassifying mergers. That programme has been a huge success, and I’m delighted to bring you the latest news – in an email I received this morning Waveney reports :
Last night, just in time for the birthday celebrations, we reached the milestone of all 44,805 images being checked for mergers having at least 10 clicks each.
This is a side project, and yet we’ve clocked up almost 10 Kevin-months between us. (Galaxy Zoo was inspired by Kevin’s original search through 50,000 Sloan galaxies, so the unit of galaxy classification is the Kevin-month.)
We have learnt our lesson, though. We have secured funding to put the Zoo on a stable footing for the next few years; the excuse that there is no-one working full time on the project will no longer be true. Future versions of the site – which will work through the Hubble Space Telescope archive and take data from the next generation of sky surveys – should follow in due course.
Speaking of Hubble, anyone who has had to listen to me babble in the last few months knows that we’re looking forward – successful repair mission depending – to pointing the world’s most famous telescope toward the Voorwerp, Galaxy Zoo’s poster object. I worry sometimes that we go on about it too much – perhaps it’s frustrating for those of you who aren’t Hanny – but it illustrates to me at least the sheer joy of this project. We’ve done the work we thought we’d do, but have discovered a wealth of other things along the way. The paper describing our initial observations of the Voorwerp will be submitted today, and there’s also news about our hunt for gravitational lenses. The overlapping galaxies project rolls on, too – we’re still working on the data we obtained on Kitt Peak a few months ago, and have three more nights in November.
I mentioned that we’d done what we thought we do; Kate’s paper – and following the evolution of that result was an interesting ride – ended up reassuring cosmologists, sparking debate about statistics here and in New Scientist – and telling us something about web design or the human brain (depending on whose hunch you believe). My paper set out the basic results, and its acceptance means that zooing data sets is now a recognised technique in astronomical data processing. Steven’s magnum opus deserves to be read by everyone studying galaxies – it is, I think, the definitive work on what galaxies live where, although not definitive enough to stop us spinning off further studies. Last but not least, Kevin’s paper finds the blue ellipticals that sent us searching through the SDSS in the first place.
There will be much more to say in year 2 of the Zoo, but for now I’m revelling in what’s happened so far. Astronomy has always – perhaps uniquely – been a science where anyone can contribute; we’ve always relied on amateurs to discover supernovae, monitor variable stars and to keep an eye on the planets. With modern light pollution and the hectic lifestyles many of us lead, finding the right place, the time and the money to take part has become increasingly difficult. I was lucky, as thanks to some excellent teachers and staff my school had a telescope we could use, but that kind of luck is sadly rare.
Galaxy Zoo opens up the chance to make real contributions to anyone with an internet connection. By taking part in Galaxy Zoo, you’re not only exploring the Universe, but also contributing to the progress of scientific knowledge. We really do know a little bit more about galaxies than we did a year ago, thanks to all the clicks on the website. It’s a stunning thought, and even one year on it stops me in my tracks.
So I’ll stop here. Happy birthday, everyone.