A Grand Bold Thing : The story of the Sloan

In many ways, the team here at Galaxy Zoo are freeloaders, making the most (with your help) of the hard work of the astronomers who work hard for years to design, build and operate the telescopes that produce the images for us to classify. The project’s first two incarnations were based entirely on images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the star of A Grand Bold Thing, a book that was released this week.

Several Zookeepers were interviewed for the book, and while I don’t know for sure that we made the final cut I asked the author, Ann Finkbeiner to explain why she’d devoted so much of her time to writing about the Sloan. Over to Ann :

My book on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey — the source of those galaxies in Galaxy Zoo and the mergers in Galaxy Zoo Mergers — came out yesterday. The Sloan was, and still is, the only systematic, beautifully-calibrated survey of the sky and everything in it. And it’s the first survey to be digital, that is, log on to the website and download galaxies.

Before the Sloan, cosmology was fractured into many fields whose relation to each other wasn’t obvious and wasn’t being studied. Sloan found all kinds of things in all areas of astronomy: asteroids in whole families, stars that had only been theories, star streams around the Milky Way, the era when quasars were born, the evolution of galaxies, the structure of the universe on the large scale, and compelling evidence for dark energy. Now, after the Sloan, cosmologists are beginning to see the universe as a whole, as a single system with parts that interact and evolve.

A Grand and Bold Thing is about the very human scientists who built the survey: people doing their best, screwing up anyway, fixing it, screwing up again, running into trouble with the young folks, running into trouble with the money, getting their feelings hurt, forming hostile camps, and managing the unintended consequences of their best intentions. But they never give up, they’re astonishingly stubborn, they just keep at it until they’ve done it.

And what they did has had an enormous impact: as Julianne Dalcanton
of the University of Washington said in the blog, Cosmic Variance, about the Sloan, “You take good data, you let smart people work with it, and you’ll get science you never anticipated.” Some of that science is being done by the good people of the Zooniverse. Surveys open to the public have always been high altruism. I think the Sloan is still surprising.

Ann Finkbeiner’s last book was The Jasons. She teaches in Johns
Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars and blogs at Last Word on

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One response to “A Grand Bold Thing : The story of the Sloan”

  1. Ann Finkbeiner says :

    Chris made the cut, so did Hanny, so did Kevin, so did the zooites in general. And the Galaxy Zoo section is — if I say so myself — one of the nicest in the whole book. It ends with an 18th century astronomer saying, “I own I can never look upon the stars without wondering why the whole world does not become astronomers.” Me too.

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