Galaxy Zoo at Dragon*Con
Imperial stormtroopers! Spartan soldiers! Functional robots! Flesh-eating zombies! Red-shirted Federation Starfleet conscripts clearly marked “Expendable”! Aliens of every shape and hue! This all sounds like a late-night film festival, and that’s part of it – but these all mean that I just returned from the 2008 edition of Dragon*Con in Atlanta. This annual event is among the worlds largest gatherings for people interested in science fiction, fantasy, gaming, the electronic world – and science. An amazing number of attendees show up in appropriate costume, lending its own special flavor. The official attendance this year surpassed 40,000. Just imagine – nearly a quarter of the population of the Zoo, all milling among events at four giant conference hotels. The programming includes parallel tracks for space and science presentations. The Zoo was represented this year in a panel discussion on citizen science, done together with Pamela Gay, possibly best known for the long-running Astronomy Cast podcast series. (She is also involved with Galaxy Zoo public outreach and potential extensions to other projects). She began by tracing the long history of astronomical contributions by non-professionals, especially in work on variable stars and minor planets. Then the digital era allowed massive public participation first through CPU cycles (SETI@home), then through identification of objects in images (Stardust@home). This led to Galaxy Zoo, where I took over the presentation for a while. I was able to trace some of its origins, the progress made in the main classification project, and show some of the additional research projects the Zoo has enabled. Two of these are special favorites of mine – galaxy overlaps and Hanny’s Voorwerp. I was able to show not only the WIYN color images of backlit galaxies, but one of the first preliminary maps of dust in the outskirts of a barred spiral. The Pamela wrapped up the session discussing future directions for citizen science. Maybe we even recruited some new participants – I made sure to leave the URL sitting on the screen for a long time at the end of the session. We may need to keep an eye put for domain names from Vulcan, Tattoine, or Arrakis… You can see a PDF version of my presentation here, where some of the slides clearly trace back to a version I got from Chris some months ago. I also handed out color copies of the GZ memory game (PDF here). This project fitted especially well with the publicity starting now for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, where astronomers worldwide are encouraging everyone to look through a telescope in honor of the 400th anniversary of Galileo doing so, turn off some lights, and contemplate the skies for themselves. I’m pretty sure everybody in the Zoo is way ahead of them already.