Classifying Galaxies from Another Universe!

We’re excited to announce the publication of another scientific study. that wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the Galaxy Zoo volunteers. The paper:

“Galaxy Zoo: Morphological classification of galaxy images from the Illustris simulation”

is the first Galaxy Zoo publication that examines visual morphological classifications of computer-generated galaxy images. The images were produced in collaboration with the international team of scientists who  implemented and analyzed the highly sophisticated Illustris cosmological simulation (you can find many more details about Illustris on the main Illustris project website and about the Galaxy Zoo: Illustris project in this previous blog post). Illustris is designed to accurately model the evolution of our Universe from a time shortly after its birth until the present day. In the process, simulated particles of dark matter, gas, and stars aggregate and condense to form galaxy clusters that contain seemingly realistic galaxies. In our paper we wanted to test the realism of those simulated galaxies by inviting Galaxy Zoo volunteers to evaluate their morphological appearance. We wanted to know whether Illustris galaxies look like real galaxies.

But where to start looking? Well, if you’ve ever classified a galaxy on Galaxy Zoo then you must have answered a question worded something like:

Is the galaxy simply smooth and rounded, or does it have features?

This question represents one of the simplest ways to distinguish between different groups of galaxies, but its answer can reveal a lot of information about a galaxy’s history, as well as its current activity. Visible features and substructure like discs, spiral arms and bars in galaxy images often indicate sites of ongoing star formation and can provide evidence for complex dynamical processes within a galaxy. On the other hand, apparently featureless galaxies may have formed in dense environments where galaxy-galaxy interactions are more common and might act to destroy features or even prevent them from forming in the first place.

In our paper, we compared the prevalence of visible features in galaxy images that were produced using Illustris against an equivalent sample of real galaxy images that were derived from Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) observations. Some of the differences we found were surprising but quite illuminating!

Each image in Galaxy Zoo is classified by about forty volunteers and their votes for each question are aggregated to obtain a consensus. The level of agreement between volunteers can be quantified using the vote fraction for a particular response. For a particular image and question the vote fraction for a possible response is just the number of volunteers who voted for that response, divided by the total number of votes cast for that question, for that image. A concrete example that applies here is the “featured” vote fraction: the number of volunteers who classified a galaxy image as exhibiting visible features divided by the total number of votes cast for the simple question that was quoted above. Vote fractions close to zero indicate that most volunteers thought the galaxy was smooth and rounded, while vote fractions around one imply almost unanimous consensus that a galaxy has visible features.

The filled green bars in Figure 1 illustrate the distribution of this “featured” vote fraction for real galaxy images. The distribution is dominated by a peak close to zero, which means that most volunteers thought that most galaxies looked smooth and featureless. There is also a smaller peak close to one, corresponding to a population of obviously featured galaxies. In contrast, the blue line shows the “featured” vote fraction for Illustris galaxy images. The bulk of the distribution is now peaked around 0.6, which means that Illustris galaxies were generally perceived to be predominantly featured. However, there are very few Illustris galaxies that were unanimously labeled as exhibiting visible features and a substantial population of visibly smooth galaxies is also present. Overall, the Illustris galaxy images seem more feature rich, but perhaps slightly more ambiguous than their SDSS counterparts.

featuredVoteFracComparison

Figure 1: The distributions of the “featured” vote fraction for real (SDSS; Green, filled bars) and simulated (Illustris; Blue, hollow bars) galaxy images. There is an obvious mismatch between the distributions for the simulated and real galaxy images.

To try to understand the origin of the mismatch between Illustris galaxies and those in the real Universe, we separated both of the image samples into three sub-groups based on the total mass of the stars that the galaxies contain (more succinctly described as their “stellar mass”).  Each of the panels in Figure 2 can be interpreted in the same way as Figure 1, except that they correspond only to the galaxies for each of the three stellar mass sub-groups. The two panels to the left are for galaxies with stellar masses less than the mass of 1000 billion suns. They look remarkably similar to Figure 1 with the SDSS and Illustris distributions matching very poorly. However, the situation changes markedly in the right-hand panel. For these extremely massive galaxies, it appears that the Illustris simulation reproduces the observed proportion of visibly featured galaxies much better, although the population of unambiguously featured galaxies is still absent.

featuredVoteFracMassIntervalComparison.png

Figure 2: The distributions of the “featured” vote fraction for real (SDSS; Green, filled bars) and simulated (Illustris; Blue, hollow bars) galaxy images. The distributions are shown for sub-groups of galaxies that are subdivided according to stellar mass. The distributions for the most massive galaxies, with stellar masses greater than the mass of 1000 billion suns, are shown in the right-hand panel. It is only for these very massive galaxies that the vote fraction distributions for simulated and real galaxies begin to look similar.

The change in behavior with stellar-mass that we have identified might simply be an artifact of the finite resolution at which Illustris is able to simulate the Universe. Computational power is limited, so Illustris cannot accurately model the positions, interactions and evolution of every star in its simulation volume (and of course tracking individual gas atoms or dark matter particles is completely impossible!). Instead, Illustris models large groups of stars, and large accumulations of gas and dark matter as single “particles” and models the way that they interact with each other. The features that volunteers perceive in Illustris galaxy images manifest substructures formed by groups of many such particles. Simulated galaxies with larger stellar masses contain more stellar particles that enable the simulation to model finer structural details which may be necessary to emulate the appearance of real galaxies.

Studies involving automatic morphological classification of Illustris galaxy images (e.g. Bottrell et al 2017, Snyder et al 2015) have also identified a marked divergence with galaxies in the real Universe below the same 1000 billion solar mass limit that we have found. Confirmation that the visual appearance of galaxies also changes perceptibly complements a growing body of knowledge on this subject.

Dust is another constituent of galaxies that can substantially modify their appearance by absorbing bluer light that typically indicates star formation and re-emitting it at redder wavelengths. This dust reddening effect is not accounted for by the Illustris simulations and could obscure the visibility of features that are actually present in real galaxies. This means that Illustris might be modeling real galaxies better than it seems, and coupling of a dust reddening model to the simulation output might improve the correspondence between the mismatched vote fraction distributions at lower stellar masses.

As is often the case in scientific research, an unanticipated result has provided valuable insight. The results from Galaxy Zoo: Illustris will help cosmologists to improve their models as they develop the next generation of large-scale simulations of our Universe. The results also underline the ongoing potential utility for visual morphological classification of simulated galaxies. The most recent cosmological simulations, including a next-generation Illustris Simulation,  address many of the shortcomings that this and other studies have revealed. Comparing their outputs with SDSS galaxy images, as well as observational data produced by other surveys, will undoubtedly yield more insights into the processes that govern the formation and evolution of galaxies. Watch this space!

A preprint of the new paper, which has been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal, can be downloaded from the arXiv.

2 responses to “Classifying Galaxies from Another Universe!”

  1. Jean Tate says :

    Cool! 🙂

    Got me thinking: the optical is but a really tiny part of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and extragalactic astronomy is very much alive and well in all but a few parts thereof (nothing from the Lyman limit to soft x-rays of course, nor very low frequency radio). Has anyone checked to see if simulations like Illustris produce realistic galaxies in other wavebands? For example, do Illustris giant ellipticals sometimes produce spectacular double radio lobes? Or can you spot HMXRBs, pulsars, supernova remnants, AGNs, etc in both hard and soft x-rays?

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