Galaxy Zoo and the Nobel Prize
No, no one on the Zoo team has won the Nobel Prize. But there are interesting connection with the 2009 Physics prizes, just announced by the Swedish Academy. The prize was shared by Charles Kao, Willard Boyle, and Charles Smith. Kao’s work contributed greatly to making fiber optics feasible for reliable transmission of signals at high bandwidth, a prerequisite for the Internet as we know it today. And incidentally, optical fibers have multiplied the effectiveness of spectrographs for astronomical surveys, by letting us pipe light from hundreds of objects at once into a single spectrograph; this is how all the SDSS spectra examined by Zooites were obtained.
Boyle and Smith shared the prize for their work in inventing charge-coupled devices. These are the electronic chips used for digital images, which have multiplied the reach of astronomical telescopes and worked their way into tens of millions of digital cameras. Compared to photographic emulsion, CCD chips are vastly more sensitive, can be calibrated more accurately, are reusable, and provide their output immediately in digital form for computer analysis or telemetry. Of course, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey made good use of these properties, with a mosaic of CCDs behind five different filters scanning the sky.
Finally, I suspect the prize committee was aware of the Galaxy Zoo project. At the very end of their excellent document on the science behind the prizes, we read:
“In science, the possibility of transferring and processing images digitally is a real revolution. Digital image processing is now a global commodity which enables, for instance, the best international expertise to be involved in crucial diagnostic and even surgical situations, through remote control and feedback through digital cameras. Furthermore the evaluation of large amounts of data (e.g. created in mapping the universe) can be spread to many groups and even to volunteers from the general public.”
Hmmmm. Data mapping the Universe, whose evaluation is shared among volunteers from the general public. That reminds me of something… At any rate, I think I can speak for the whole Zoo community in saying to Kao, Boyle, and Smith – congratulations, and a special vote of thanks!