Evolutionary Paths In Galaxy Morphology: A Galaxy Zoo Conference
This week much of the team has been in Sydney, Australia, for the Evolutionary Paths In Galaxy Morphology conference. It’s a meeting centered largely around Galaxy Zoo, but it’s more generally about galaxy evolution, and how Galaxy Zoo fits into our overall (ever unfolding) picture of galaxy evolution.
The first talk of the conference was a public talk by Chris, fitting for a project that would not have been possible without public participation. Chris also gave a science talk later in the conference, summarizing many of the different results from Galaxy Zoo (and with a focus on presenting the results of team members who couldn’t be at the meeting). For me, Karen’s talk describing secular galaxy evolution and detailing the various recent results that have led us to believe “slow” evolution is very important was a highlight of Tuesday, and the audience questions seemed to express a wish that she could have gone on for longer to tie even more of it together. When the scientists at a conference want you to keep going after your 30 minutes are up, you know you’ve given a good talk.
In fact, all of the talks from team members were very well received, and over the course of the week so far we’ve seen how our results compare to and complement those of others, some using Galaxy Zoo data, some not. We’ve had a number of interesting talks describing the sometimes surprising ways the motions of stars and gas in galaxies compare with the visual morphologies. Where (and how bright) the stars and dust are in a galaxy doesn’t always give clues to the shape of the stars’ orbits, nor the extent and configuration of the gas that often makes up a large fraction of a galaxy’s mass.
This goes the other way, too: knowing the velocities of stars and gas in a galaxy doesn’t necessarily tell you what kinds of stars they are, how they got there, or what they’re doing right now. I suspect a combination of this kinematic information with the image information (at visual and other wavelengths) will in the future be a more often used and more powerful diagnostic tool for galaxies than either alone.
Overall, the meeting was definitely a success, and throughout the meeting we tried to keep a record of things so that others could keep up with the conference even if they weren’t able to attend. There was a lot of active tweeting about the conference, for example, and Karen and I took turns recording the tweets so that we’d have a record of each day of the Twitter discussion. Here those are, courtesy of Storify:
Also, remember at our last hangout when we said we’d have a hangout from Sydney? That proved a bit difficult, not just because of the packed meeting schedule but also because of bandwidth issues: overburdened conference and hotel wifi connections just aren’t really up to the task of streaming a hangout. We eventually found a place, but then it turned out there was construction going on next door, so instead of the sunny patio we had intended to run the hangout from we ended up in an upstairs bedroom to get as far away from the noise as possible. Ah, well. You can see our detailed discussion of how the meeting went below, including random contributions from the jackhammer next door (but only for the first few minutes):
(click here for the podcast version)
And now we’ll all return (eventually) to our respective institutions to reflect on the meeting, start work on whatever new ideas the conference discussions, talks and posters started brewing, and continue the work we had set aside for the past week. None of this is really as easy as it sounds; the best meetings are often the most exhausting, so it takes some time to recover. I asked our fearless leader Chris if he had a pithy statement to sum up his feeling of exhilarated post-meeting fatigue, and he took my keyboard and offered the following:
gt ;////cry;gvlbhul,kubmc ;dptfvglyknjuy,pt vgybhjnomk
I’m sure that, if any tears were shed, they were tears of joy. This is a great project and it’s only getting better.
What is a Galaxy? …the return
The first time I gave a public talk, I spent an hour describing why galaxy classification is fundamentally important to the study of the Universe, the origins of Galaxy Zoo, the amazing response of the volunteers and the diverse results from their collective classifications of a million galaxies near and far. I showed many gorgeous galaxy images, a few dark matter simulations and even a preview of the Hubble image of Hanny’s Voorwerp.
As I finished my talk and the Q&A began, I braced myself for the inevitably interesting and challenging questions (I seem to get a lot of questions about black holes and spacetime).
A brief pause, and then the first question echoed from somewhere in the darkened auditorium: …”What’s a galaxy?”
Oops. Apparently I’d forgotten that little detail at the start of the talk. So I described a typical galaxy (if there is such a thing): a collection of stars, gas, dust, dark matter, all gravitationally bound together. Then I made a joke about scientists forgetting to define their terms, and we moved on to the next raised hand.
Turns out, though, it’s not such an easy question. Even though my casual definition works fine for most galaxies, it’s not at all an agreed-upon standard. We’ve discussed this on the blog before, and even in the short time (astronomically speaking) since Karen wrote that very nice post, more work has been done to find galaxies that push the boundaries and force us to re-think what it really means to be a galaxy.
So, spurred by a very broad interpretation of a question left for us in the comments on the post announcing this hangout, we decided to re-visit the discussion, covering the various properties a galaxy must have, should have, could have, and can’t have. We discussed the smallest galaxies, found by counting and measuring each of their individual stars. We discussed the biggest, brightest galaxies in the universe, living in rich environments and grown fat by eating other galaxies. And everything in between.
Note: when we talk about Segue 1 and 2, I say that these galaxies are unique because they have low mass-to-light ratios. Despite the pause that indicated I was trying to keep from inverting numerator and denominator… that’s exactly what I did. The galaxies have very few stars compared to the amount of dark matter in them, so their mass is high and their light is low, so their mass-to-light ratios are high. Oops (again)!
Galaxy Zoo Quench – Experience the Full Scientific Process
Experience Science from Beginning to End! Classify, Analyze, Discuss, and Collaboatively Write an Article!
Galaxy Zoo and other Zooniverse projects have given thousands the opportunity to contribute to scientific research. It’s time to take the role of volunteers to the next level. For the next two months*, this new Galaxy Zoo Quench project provides the opportunity to take part in the ENTIRE scientific process – everything from classifying galaxies to analyzing results to collaborating with astronomers to writing a scientific article!
Galaxy Zoo Quench will examine a sample of galaxies that have recently and abruptly quenched their star formation. These galaxies are aptly named Post-Quenched Galaxies. They provide an ideal laboratory for studying how galaxies evolve from blue, star-forming spiral galaxies to red, non-star-forming elliptical galaxies. Using the more than a million galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, we identified ~3000 post-quenched galaxies. By classifying these galaxies and analyzing the results, we will explore the mechanisms that quenched their star formation and investigate the role of post-quenched galaxies in galaxy evolution.
The entire process of classifying, analyzing, discussing, and writing the article will take place over an 8 week period*, beginning July 18th. After classifying the galaxies, volunteers will use the tools available within Zooniverse to plot the data and look for trends. Through reading articles and interaction in Talk, volunteers will gain background information. Throughout, they’ll discuss with the science team their interpretation of the results. At the end of the process, volunteers and the science team will collaboratively write a 4-page Astrophysical Journal article.
What causes the star formation in these galaxies to be quenched? How do interactions impact galaxy evolution? What is the fate of our Milky Way? Join us this Summer (or Winter if you’re below the equator!) in exploring these questions, being a part of the scientific process, and contributing to our understanding of this dynamic phase of galaxy evolution!
CLICK HERE TO PARTICIPATE!
We’ll be sharing more details about this project during the next Galaxy Zoo Hangout, on Monday, July 15th at 14:00 CST / 19:00 GMT / 20:00 BST. Have questions about the project? Post them here or tweet at us (@galaxyzoo). Just before the Hangout starts, we’ll embed the video here so you can watch from the blog.
The best way to send us a comment during the live Hangout is through twitter (@galaxyzoo). You can also leave a comment on this blog post, or on Google Plus, Facebook or YouTube. See you soon!
Update: here’s the hangout (and the mp3 version)!
*Note: science timelines often subject to a factor of two uncertainty. We’ll do our best to keep on track, at the same time expecting the unexpected (all part of the fun of doing science!).
Clicking 10 Billion Years Into The Past
Astronomers use funny units. We have the light-year, which sounds like a time but is actually a distance. There’s the parsec, a historical (but still used) unit of distance that was famously mis-used as a time in Star Wars. And then there’s redshift, which is actually a velocity — distance divided by time — but which, because of the expansion of the universe, astronomers get to use as a proxy for distance.
While it may be convenient for us to use distance units where we set a mind-blowingly large number equal to 1, it doesn’t really help us communicate our work to the public. If I note that the galaxy images from CANDELS look a little different from the galaxies in the SDSS because the CANDELS galaxies are typically at a redshift of 2, that’s pretty meaningless. But it’s a little different to think of the fact that, when you classify a galaxy from CANDELS, you may be looking three-quarters of the way to the edge of the visible universe, and seeing the galaxy as it was 10 billion years ago.
During this hangout, we announced that your clicks and classifications of the CANDELS galaxies have been moving at such an impressive rate that the first round is finished. Every galaxy has enough classifications for us to get a very good sense of what its morphology is. It may be that, for some of the galaxies where there are clearly more details to flush out, we will ask for a few more classifications per galaxy. And there will probably be future CANDELS images from survey fields that are still being completed. So, don’t worry, there will still be plenty of opportunities to classify galaxies as they were 10 billion years ago!
In the meantime, though, we’re getting ready not just to do the scientific analysis, but to share Galaxy Zoo results with our colleagues around the world. The summer conference season is upon us, and many of us have given and are giving talks and posters at various meetings in various cities. This includes not just the recent meeting highlighting the importance of galaxy morphology in the era of large surveys at the Royal Astronomical Society and the upcoming ZooCon in Oxford and Galaxy Zoo meeting in Sydney, but also several more general conferences, including the 222nd American Astronomical Society meeting and the upcoming UK National Astronomy Meeting. Spreading the word about the scientific results we’re finding with Galaxy Zoo is one of the most important parts of our job — and it doesn’t hurt that in order to do that we have to visit some very interesting places. During the hangout we chatted a bit about that and also took some of your questions:
Note: although it was a beautiful sunny day in Oxford, the variable audio quality is not because I was occasionally distracted looking out the window. I don’t think it was the new microphone, either. We’ll look into it, but in the meantime I’ve tried to equalize the podcast version with some after-editing, so hopefully that is slightly better.
Using Space Warps to Discover and Weigh Galaxies
John Wheeler once summarized General Relativity as “Matter tells space how to curve, and space tells matter how to move.” While that is a handy description, and while there have been many textbooks written, lectures given and websites constructed to explain this, the quote itself doesn’t address what happens to the light streaming through the universe as it encounters the warped space curved by matter.
The simple answer is: it curves too, and Einstein’s equations provide predictions for exactly how it works. In fact, observations of the bending of starlight around the Sun were one of the first implemented tests of General Relativity, and it passed with flying colors. On the scale of the Universe, the Sun isn’t that massive, but it’s massive enough to bend the light just a little, and by exactly the amount the equations predicted.
Those equations say that more matter in the same place is more likely to produce a strong lens effect, distorting and magnifying a background source. So what happens when you have a *lot* of matter, say, in a big galaxy or a cluster of galaxies?
Some pretty impressive configurations, which are rare but which humans are best at finding — hence Space Warps, the Zooniverse’s newest project and our astronomical project sibling. Co-lens-experts Phil Marshall and Aprajita Verma joined us during this hangout to describe how they use gravitational lenses to weigh galaxies. In particular, they can tell the difference between Dark Matter and “matter that’s dark” — the former being the exotic particles that are very different from stars and gas and planets and people, and the latter being normal matter that isn’t bright, such as brown dwarf “stars” that never actually ignited.
Note: Google+ was feeling a bit out of sorts, so the first minute or so of the broadcast was cut off, during which time Bill Keel showed us the first known image of a gravitational lens, from 1903. We went on to talk about all of the above, and more besides, including the importance of simulated lenses, why the images Space Warps uses are specially tuned to help us find lenses, and how the science team (which includes citizen scientists from Galaxy Zoo!) plan to turn our clicks into discoveries.
(or download the podcast mp3 here)
Notice my swapping of pronouns to “we” — I’m not on the Space Warps science team, but I’ve done nearly 100 classifications now myself! I can’t wait to see the results start to come in from this project.
Oh, Sweet Spiral Of Mine
See the video of our latest hangout here (or, if you prefer, click to download the podcast version):
Spiral galaxies are seemingly endless sources of fascination, perhaps because they’re so complex and diverse. But why does spiral structure exist? Why do some spiral galaxies have clearly defined spiral arms and others have flocculent structure that barely seems to hold together? What’s the difference between a 2-arm spiral and a 3-arm spiral? How many kinds of spirals do we actually observe? And what is happening to the stars and gas in spiral galaxy disks?
All of the above questions are related to a question we got right at the end of our last hangout: what is the significance of the number of spiral arms? Determining how many spiral arms a galaxy has is hard, and is often subjective — so why bother?
It’s a good question. Part of the reason spiral arm classification & count is a challenge is that it often depends on the wavelength at which you observe a galaxy. New stars tend to form along the spiral arms, whereas older stars have time to spread out into more uniform orbits. So ultraviolet observations of a galaxy, which tend to pick out the new and bright stars, often highlight the spiral arms much more strongly than longer-wavelength observations, which see more light from older stars.
It’s not quite that simple, though. As you get to longer and longer wavelengths, you start to pick up the heat radiated by clouds of gas and dust, which are often stellar nurseries — and often trace spiral arms. At a wavelength of 21 centimeters you can detect neutral Hydrogen, which provides raw material for the cooling and condensation of gas into cold, dense molecular clouds that form stars in their densest pockets. Each wavelength you observe at provides a glimpse at a different targeted feature of a spiral galaxy.
Including our own, of course: we live in a spiral galaxy (though how many arms it has, and whether it’s flocculent, is a matter of debate), and it provides the best means of studying star formation up close. When studying other galaxies, it’s easy to get caught up in the race to discover the biggest, the smallest, the farthest and the most extreme, and forget that our own Universal neighborhood is pretty amazing too.
For example, one of the most famous nebulae in the world was recently imaged by one of the most famous telescopes in the world — again — but this time in the near-infrared. The Horsehead Nebula is a well-known feature in the Orion star-forming complex, and the new Hubble images provide a great opportunity to learn even more about this region that has been studied for hundreds of years. How thick and cold is the gas and dust in the nebula? How long will it take for it to dissipate under the harsh radiation of the bright, young stars near it? What’s going on behind it?
The near-infrared view from HST is sort of the sweet spot in this spectacular space — the wavelengths aren’t so long that the resolution suffers, but they are long enough that you see through a bit more of the clouds than in the optical. So you see more of the structure of the cloud itself, and more of where it’s thin and thick. If you zoom in, you can even see distant galaxies peeking through! And not just on the edges: in some parts you can see galaxies through the middle of the nebula. Wow. This image alone contains spiral galaxy insights big and small, near and far, from the very distant universe and right in our own backyard.
Note: right at the end of the hangout, we again got another great question from a viewer that we didn’t have time to answer. So stay tuned for the next hangout when we just might have a thing or two to say about dark matter, dark energy and new projects!
Two Atoms Populate on a Dust Grain
I enjoy days where we get to use questions from the public to meander our way through the Universe. Our latest live hangout saw us discussing the latest update to the Galaxy Zoo site — made based on your clicks! — and doing a live, collective classification on a few example objects from our Hubble sample that we hope represent the kind of things you’ll be seeing more of from now on.
We debated, for example, whether this galaxy’s central “feature” was a bulge or a bar:
Whether this relatively featureless galaxy’s blue smudge indicates a voorwerp:
And how many spiral arms this galaxy has:
We also talked about the origin and importance of dust in galaxies, and just what a green pea would look like in the Hubble data. Green peas are galaxies with incredibly high rates of star formation. They’re rare in the local Universe, but how rare do we think they were billions of years ago, at the epoch we’re looking back to with Hubble?
And, for that matter, what were the stars like then? Astronomers very broadly group stars into three populations depending on their composition. The very earliest stars were made from the primordial elements forged during the Big Bang — almost entirely Hydrogen and Helium, nearly devoid of anything else (we call “anything else” a metal, including elements like Carbon and Oxygen). The next generation of stars had some metals, but the Universe has been around long enough that those stars (even the lower-mass ones that live for a long time) are past their prime and a new generation, one with compositions generally like our Sun, are now in their heyday.
Naturally, though, since the Sun is our First Star, we call its generation Population I. The slightly older stars, many of which are still around and living in our galaxy and others, are Population II; and the very massive rockstars of the early universe that have all died out are called Population III. So “Pop III” were the first stars — a slight reversal, but labels and names that seemed like a better idea at the time than with hindsight are nothing new in Astronomy. (Exhibit A: the magnitude system. Exhibit B: “planetary nebula“.)
Bonus: green peas, voorwerpjes, and planetary nebulae are just three of the phenomena that (at least in part) glow green to human eyes because of one particular frequency of light emitted by Oxygen at a certain temperature, an atomic transition seen only rarely on Earth but fairly often in the Universe.
Also, did you know that dust grains are the singles bars of the atomic universe, allowing atoms to meet and combine into molecules and cooling the gas clouds they live in — which in turn helps new stars form? Heating and cooling, gravity and pressure, and the interplay between atoms, molecules, and radiation are all a part of what gives us this amazingly diverse Universe. We understand quite a lot of it given that we are such a tiny part of it, but what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t. And that’s just the way astronomers like it… we love a challenge and we’re glad to have as much help as possible sorting things out.
Here’s the hangout video:
Blood Oranges are just like Hubble Galaxies
Astronomers always want better images. Sometimes it’s possible right away; other times doing better requires new technology and/or waiting for the next generation of telescopes. We have both kinds of “fuzzy blobs” in Galaxy Zoo, and during this hangout we showed several examples. For a couple of hangouts now we’ve been meaning to address some of the most frequently asked questions about the faintest, most distant galaxies we ask volunteers to classify:
- what are they?
- why are the images so fuzzy?
- can we get better images of them now or in the future?
Given the data we have, the short answer to the first question is that we don’t yet know for sure — and, perhaps most importantly, we don’t need to know all the details. We can learn quite a lot from classifying even faint, fuzzy objects. Some of the faint galaxies on Galaxy Zoo are among the most distant galaxies ever imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, and we don’t necessarily expect them to look like galaxies we see more nearby, so classifications from our volunteers are helping us to understand them even when we don’t have all the information we might want.
And what would it take to give us the information we want? What’s the future of astronomy after Hubble? How can we get better data than we have right now? Do we need to go into space to do it? (And what else are we working on right now, anyway?) Answers given in the video:
This is a great time to be working on Galaxy Zoo: there’s plenty to classify and analyze, and — of course — plenty to discuss. So stay tuned for next time!
Note: for those who prefer audio only, here’s a link to the podcast version.
Jargon Alert: Your IMF Just Messed With My SPS!
I remember going to a lecture as an undergraduate wherein my professor compared what astronomers do to a hypothetical alien crew on a fast-moving ship that can only take one photo of the Earth as it passes by. We can assume they have a special camera that can see through buildings, but otherwise they just get one photo of, say, a major city, and from that they have to try and learn as much as they can about the human race. How hard would it be to discover that our species has two genders? Or that both of them are required to propagate the species, but only one gives birth? Would it be possible to figure out the whole human life cycle? To discover what disease is? To distinguish between genetics and culture (nature and nurture)? Just having one picture is limiting, but with careful study you can learn more than you think.
The professor was drawing an analogy with the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram in particular, which we’ve talked about before on our hangouts: to make it, you record the color and the luminosity of all the stars you can and plot them up against each other, one point per star. The stars group together in interesting ways in particular areas of the diagram, and it turns out that from this diagram alone you can recover an enormous amount about the life cycles of a population of stars (for example, in a star cluster, a neighborhood of our own galaxy, or a nearby galaxy). You can learn even more if you couple the diagram with spectra of stars from different parts of it. Studying stellar populations has helped us understand the fundamentals of what kinds of stars exist, how they are born and die, and how many stars of any given mass are likely to develop in a galaxy in relation to stars of different masses. That last thing is called the Initial Mass Function (IMF for short). Essentially it says that, when stars form in groups, more low-mass stars form than high-mass stars. Put that together with what we know about how much brighter high-mass stars shine and how much faster they die than low-mass stars, and you can start to understand how whole populations of stars in galaxies form and evolve.
And we can apply our studies of nearby galaxies and groups of stars to galaxies we observe much farther away. It’s a good thing, too, since most galaxies are far enough away that our current telescopes can’t resolve individual stars. We just get the sum of the light from all the stars. That combined light is sometimes made up of multiple populations of stars that formed in groups at different times and now all live together in a particular galaxy. Taking that single picture combining the light from billions (often hundreds of billions) of stars and using it to learn about the stars’ masses, ages and histories is an important process, and there are several ways to do it: one way combines models of stellar populations made by forming and evolving many stars in a computer simulation. This is sometimes called Stellar Population Synthesis, or SPS.
On today’s live Hangout, we once again let your questions guide us as we talked about IMFs and what they have to do with SPS and measuring the stellar masses of galaxies. The work that laid the foundations for today’s study of galaxy stellar populations was done in large part by women (Bill mentioned Beatrice Tinsley, for example), which is fitting since today is International Women’s Day. We talked about that too, and about diversity in general in astronomy. Just as you can learn a lot from even one snapshot of a galaxy, you can do a lot with just a bit of mindfulness about being an ally for diversity (Kyle noted on Twitter that World Day for Cultural Diversity is May 21), be it equality for women or for any other minority groups in science, or indeed any field.
Here’s the audio-only version of the Hangout: click to listen to mp3 version.
And the video:
We’ll post about our next hangout soon; in the meantime, keep those questions coming!
Green Valley: The Town Too Good To Die
I swear we are consistently trying to keep our live hangouts to about 15 minutes. We have so far failed at keeping to time, but hopefully also succeeded in the sense that we only run over because there’s so much to discuss.
We had a number of good questions from Twitter, Facebook and the blog about various types of galaxies — from red spirals to green peas and blue ellipticals — and I rather arbitrarily decided this was an indication that our hangout should have a color theme. That is, what exactly does “color” mean in the context of astronomy? What is going on physically when a galaxy is one color versus another, or has multiple colors? Is color information always telling us the same thing? We tried to address all those questions, as well as show some examples of different galaxies in the above queried categories. As a bonus, we learned how galaxy colors are related to the town my grandparents retired to. (This post’s title is a quote from the Green Valley Chamber of Commerce’s official website.) That was as much a surprise to me as it was to the viewers!
We also talked about what’s currently going on in Galaxy Zoo behind the scenes. Earlier today, Kyle sent around a really nice draft of the Galaxy Zoo 2 data paper for the team to read and comment on (you’ll have to watch the video to get a sneak peek at some of the figures).
And it’s that time again: Hubble Space Telescope proposals are due in about a week. We talked about the proposal process from concept to submission to review, discussing both specifics of certain telescopes and the general practices that (we hope) help lead to a successful proposal. Here’s a hint: it may not be what you think!
We covered all this and some other questions, too. No wonder we ran a little over…
And here’s the podcast version: