Archive | Random RSS for this section

Greetings from Anchorage Alaska!

Hi all,

I’ve just arrived at the American Astronomical Society 220th meeting in Anchorage AK (#aas220 on Twitter, follow it). Quite a few people working on the Zoo are here too and it promises to be an exciting meeting.

But what I really wanted to share was this sign spotted by a cafe just outside the conference venue:


Update: the coffee store put up a new sign:



Also, thanks to the Zooite who came to chat to Steph at the Galaxy Zoo AGN inclination poster!

My Galaxies – Write in Starlight

Long time Zookeeper Steven Bamford has made a new website on which you can easilly write any words you like from the galaxy alphabet.He’s called the website: My Galaxies – Write in Starlight!




Galaxy Zoo in this week's Guardian

Just a quick note to let you know that there’s a very nice story about Galaxy Zoo, it’s beginnings and citizen science in general in the Guardian:

It features, amongst others, our very own Alice (@penguingalaxy) and Hanny (@hannyvanarkel). For more late-breaking Galaxy Zoo news, why not follow us on Twitter (@galaxyzoo)?

A Summer Spent Finding Our Galactic Twin

Today’s post is a guest post by A-level Student, Tim Buckman from Portsmouth Grammer School, who spent 6 weeks working with me at Portsmouth University this summer through the Nuffield Science Bursery Scheme.

Finding Our Galactic Twin

For millions of years humans have attempted to understand their place in the cosmos.

We went from the flat Earth to the globe; from a geocentric to a heliocentric solar system, and now we understand we live in the outskirts of a spiral galaxy – a massive collection of stars.

For years though astronomers have endeavoured to find out what The Milky Way, our home galaxy, actually looks like in detail. The difficulty lies in the fact that we live within it, and it would take thousands of years of travel to get a good photo opportunity. The best models suggest that our galaxy is a spiral galaxy with between two and four spiral arms, a central bulge and a bar at the centre. Using what data we have, artists have tried to create an impression of our galaxy’s structure and form, the best guess being the one below.

An artists impression of our Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Robert Hurt (SSC-Caltech)


Recently, the European Southern Observatory released an image of a galaxy which they called as a twin for our own. On the face of it the galaxy (below) looks just like our own, it has a similar number of spiral arms, it has a central bulge and, if you look closely, even a small bar at the centre. It’s name is NGC 6744 and from July of this year, it became our Galaxy’s twin. There is a small problem with this galaxy however, or should I say, a large problem; this galaxy is actually twice the size of our own in mass and size and therefore is a bit of a stretch to suggest it as a copy. We are again stumbling in the dark to find more about where we live.


NGC 6744 - the previously proposed clone. Credit: ESO.


This is where the Galaxy Zoo project CAN help. It aims with the help of ALMOST 450,000 volunteers, to classify as many galaxies as possible from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. By using this information, we can start to narrow down a list of galaxies to look at. By filtering out those which were seen to have features and were relatively face-on to the camera, we end up with a list of around 17,500 galaxies in total. Again by filtering out those galaxies with the same mass, number of spiral arms and having a bar like the Milky Way, we find that there are just 9 galaxies which fit this criteria. Of these nine galaxies, the one which looked the most like the artists impression was the one shown below. This galaxy, captured through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) camera is the most likely of the galaxies we have seen to be a clone of our own.


The new Milky Way clone candidate. Credit: SDSS.


The fact remains that this might, possibly, not be the best Milky Way ‘clone’ in the universe, there are countless galaxies yet to be photographed and there are thousands of galaxies which, due to their orientation, make it very difficult to see whether they are anything like ours. However, with rapid advances in technology, this dream of finding the shape of our galaxy is just around the corner.

Galaxy Zoo at the Durham Galaxy Evolution Conference

I think I won’t get in too much trouble if I say that in my opinion the event of summer 2011 for extragalactic astronomers was a massive international conference which took place in Durham, July 18th-22nd Galaxy Formation. You’ll be happy to know that Galaxy Zoo scientists were represented, with myself, Kevin, Ramin Skibba (who wrote one of the first Galaxy Zoo papers back in 2009), Vardha Bennert (who has done some HST followup for us, she’s profiled in the “She’s an Astronomer” series from 2009) and Boris Haussleur (see his blog posts about Hubble Zoo) all present.


400 Extragalactic Astronomers in Durham. That's me circled in orange, Ramin in pink and Boris in blue. Kevin and Vardha might be there somewhere but I've yet to spot them!

The moment of the conference for me was the first mention of Galaxy Zoo in the plenary talks – my work on the Galaxy Zoo 2 bars (see many blog posts!) was mentioned in a talk on the influence of internal evolution on galaxies (something we call “secular evolution” which bascially means the slow transformation of galaxies by material being moved around by the bars and/or spirals) which was given by Francoise Combes. I got so excited I took a picture of her slide, which you can also see in her talk pdf.

Francoise Combes talking about Galaxy Zoo results on bars

And here’s the slide so you can actually read it.

Francoise Combes's slide so you can actually read it


The red spirals also got a mention in a talk on gas in galaxies (by Luca Cortese – pdf unfortunately not uploaded at time of writing) where it was shown that at least half of them have very low NUV (near ultra-violet) emission for spiral galaxies. This is expected if as we think they are truly passive spirals with very little current star formation (which created NUV light).

Many of the slides for the talks, as well as the posters are available online (including mine, which for once wasn’t about my Galaxy Zoo work, but work with the new SDSS survey which is imaging 1.5 million galaxies at intermediate redshifts – unfortunately as fuzzy blobs, so no new objects for the Zoo from them!). There is also a plan to make video of the talks available. I’ll post an update about that when it happens.

Unfortunately I had to leave before Kevin and Vardha gave their talks on the Friday. Neither of them have posted their pdfs yet either. 😦

Boris and Ramin had posters – also like me on their non-Galaxy Zoo work (Boris: Measuring the physical properties of galaxy components in modern multi-wavelength surveys, Ramin: Are Brightest Halo Galaxies Central Galaxies?).

It was a great conference and I had a wonderful time in Durham.

Insane Happiness in Massachusetts

Today’s post is by Alice Sheppard:

Last winter I got a phone call from ZookeeperChris who asked me if I’d be interested in attending the next American Astronomical Society conference (spelled AAS, and pronounced “double-A-S”). The very idea seemed too good to be true – so too good to be true that I shoved it to the back of my mind in case it was all a dream.

But it wasn’t, and bit by bit I booked flights and sorted out an ESTA. This May’s conference was to be in Boston, the city south of the river from Harvard University, near which the writer Lois Lowry’s teenage heroine Anastasia lives. (“I have just returned from Boston. It is the only thing to do if you find yourself there,” the comedian Fred Allen is alleged to have said.)

That was especially neat for me, because there was some research I wanted to do in Harvard’s archives. (If it comes to anything, I will tell you all about it, but I’m not ready to make it public yet.) I started picking around for youth hostels at which to spend some extra time in Boston. Even in March and April, all the cheapest places were booked, but I set to planning my first visit to America with mounting excitement . . .

The journey across the UK took as long as that across the Atlantic. I had never been out of western Europe before. Flying over Nova Scotia was especially fascinating – great ripply expanses of dark rock and snow. At the airport I was greeted with two incredibly long queues and the ghastliest “welcome” video I have ever seen. As soon as I got through security (where they confiscated my sandwiches!) into Boston I knew I disagreed with Fred Allen entirely. The air was silky with a pleasant cool humidity, the streets were bright red and green with brick houses and healthy trees. Their version of the Tube was cheap, very frequent, and incredibly cute – random little walkways and steps up to the train from a rail-level platform everywhere. I clambered out of Copley Place station into a huge square surrounded by fast roads with long cars and grand-looking buildings, some of which had red curtains in the windows like palaces. The hotel ZookeeperJordan had booked me into (thank you!) was also the most glamorous place I’d ever seen. My own lecturers at university had spent field trips at cheap youth hostels with the rest of us, so all the glitz came as a bit of a shock, especially with the bottles of water being eight dollars each!

After 22 hours of travelling I failed to stay awake for the reception on Sunday night! I met Chris at 8 on the third floor of another glitzy hotel where the conference was taking place. There was a central room full of exciting – if difficult – posters from astronomers all over America, at the back of which stood a trolley full of delicious little pastries and two tables of tea and coffee each morning. Around this room were two floors full of all the different talks. There were usually at least four going at once, so I had to make a great many sorrowful sacrifices – I wanted to hear absolutely everything.

I was effectively there both as press and as a zooite, meaning I attended press conferences or the more technical lectures as I wanted. The press room was on the seventh floor; the lifts went so fast they made me feel sick, as if I was in a ship on a storm. (I don’t think all that travelling entirely agreed with me!) There was more tea and coffee up there, a nice big table to punch our laptops at, a pigeonhole for each of us full of press releases and dinner announcements – I signed up to a dinner on Tuesday evening. We spent a good hour or so trying to hear each other in a very noisy bus in Boston and Cambridge traffic, had a Chinese meal, and then wandered along to Harvard College Observatory.

The room we sat in was next to the largest telescope. It had railings at the top with planetary symbols welded into them. It had been built for public nights on the order of Harlow Shapley in about 1930 – and these public nights had continued ever since. This evening we began with a slideshow of ridiculous Boston signs, mostly along the lines of “Welcome to Boston – now get the hell out of my way” and “HA HA YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR WORK” – after all that time on the bus you can imagine us press folks screamed with laughter! We then went on to how Harvard College Observatory began, with its little army of “female computers” and how Henrietta Leavitt discovered Cepheid variables. That talk was followed by one from Richard Panek about his new book, “The 4% Universe”, which looks very good. Apparently the furthest supernovae were fainter than they should have been and this was how the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe was discovered. I thought this meant that things expanded slowly in the past and quickly now, and asked about this paradox, but the amount of offended-seeming yelling in my direction both that night and the next day from several well-meaning press people indicated that either I missed something fundamental about the idea, or they did about my question.

I went to a few press conferences, some of which were good, but the talks I enjoyed the most were the most technical presentations by the academics! I stuck mostly to these, my notebook’s scribble content growing wildly. (In between talks and amazing meals, I tried to keep the Zoo updated, but Stellar190 did a better job than me just through the tweets!) The Galaxy Zoo talks were about bars, red spirals, galaxies’ environments, active galactic nuclei and what feeds them, and more . . . I also heard about stellar weather and how it affects planets (as well as our ability to find them), about redshift-space and Margaret Geller and John Huchra’s work mapping the Universe, about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – honeycomb-shaped sooty molecules – in Titan and in nebulae; about thrilling surveys of galaxies and of supernovae and of all other things; about planet-finding techniques and attempts to guess stellar age (which is remarkably difficult because stars look pretty much the same except when very young or very old); about what today’s great telescopes are up to; about the search for planets beyond Pluto which some astronomers assured me was pseudoscience while the speakers looked very sure of themselves; lots about quasars and active galactic nuclei; lots of strange techniques with unfamiliar acronyms – just the kind of thing to terrify me – until people told me what they meant and they suddenly became logical and something I could master.
There was a lot I didn’t understand. But three things were very reassuring: firstly, that there was a lot I did understand; secondly, when all the astronomers assured me they didn’t understand everything either; thirdly, when, after being a pest and asking several questions in it seemed every single talk, quite a few people asked me what I was studying and when I told them I’m just an amateur, urged me to do a PhD and go into academia because I clearly had a good grasp of the subject.

And this is someone who was ordered to drop maths and physics at age 16, and who struggled through a science degree and thought herself a failure as a result. This is someone who, five years ago, hadn’t a clue that astronomy was a subject anyone other than professionals could contribute to – much less that she herself could be part of.
And now I’ve spent four years moderating our beloved forum, learning so much from zooites and zookeepers – and this week really was the greatest payment I could possibly have had for my work. And I sense that it’s only the beginning.

On Wednesday, the third day and last full day, there is invariably an AAS party. I am not very good at parties and had to be forcibly dragged along. When the people who run AAS were also caught dancing and falling over with a flourish, intermingled with comments from other astronomers that they’re no good at parties either and many of them only dance twice a year, I certainly relaxed! I made some more friends – and I’d already made a few at the conference – and got back to the hotel some time into the small hours. I regrettably failed to manage the lecture first thing next morning, which was a pity because it was on the smallest, faintest galaxies and besides apparently being very good would have been right up Waveney’s street. I wrote a while ago that irregular galaxies, which Waveney is studying, might be the plankton and bacteria of the Universe – not the great tigers and elephants that are spirals and ellipticals, but perhaps just as important to understand – who knows? Maybe we Zooites will.

At lunch time on Thursday it was time for the astronomers all to jet off to their various locations – some with new toy mooses, because the next summer meeting will be in Alaska (it’s nice to know astronomers don’t have to act mature) – and me to stumble my heavy bags along to the youth hostel where I would spend the next nine days. I was so sorry the conference was over; it was like being in a brilliant shower of beautiful facts and news. It was lovely to see all the zookeepers I’d met before – Chris, Kevin, Carie, Lucy, Pamela – and to meet Karen, Ivy, Brooke, Alfredo (I sadly missed meeting Meg) – and my apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten there!

I had a great week exploring Boston and doing research. The temperature skyrocketed and suddenly the humidity became a real burden – now I know why all the East Coasters complain about it! A terrific storm broke on Wednesday night; for three quarters of an hour the clouds were almost constantly lit by sheet lightning, something I’d never seen. I turned off the light in my youth hostel room and sat at the window spellbound. It became distinctly less enjoyable when I looked at Twitter on my phone and discovered that there were the first tornadoes taking place in Massachusetts for decades and people had actually been killed.

Very early on the morning of Saturday 4th June, I was back at the airport on my way to Chicago to visit Chris at the Adler Planetarium, where he’s been spending his sabbatical developing (among other things) the Citizen Science Alliance – onto whose advisory board Jules and I are thrilled to be invited! Chicago was even hotter than Boston. You know those hot winds you get in the London Underground when a train is coming? We got those in Chicago outside – but hotter and much stronger! I felt myself wilting most of the time, and ached to dive into the beautifully clear blue water. My hotel there was toblerone-shaped and I was on the 27th floor – the view was spectacular! Chicago has a double layer of roads and railways, so you often have to go up stairs to get to the street you’re after – I think Chris said there’d been plans to flood it, among other eyebrow-raising engineering feats. I failed to spot any Chicago gangsters too. In fact my welcome to Chicago, apart from the crippling heat, was the best possible. The airport walls are lined with astronomy pictures. Just as we are reaching out to the stars, we are bringing the stars to the public, too, as is only right – but so delightful.

Adler Planetarium is beautiful. I can see why Chris loves working there. There is a wall display of the whole area of the Milky Way Project, archways like Moon rock, beeping flashing machines representing cosmic rays as they come through Earth’s atmosphere, a screen which shows you in infra-red light, and a small lecture theatre full of huge screens and computers – including 3D – in which to give talks. I found myself in here on my last day (about an hour before I was due to head off to the airport) giving a Galaxy Zoo talk to all the visitors that wandered in! That was a bigger challenge than most talks I give, because people were continually wandering in and out, and some stayed much longer than others. I also met a lot of scary “educators” or something, who Chris was telling about various Zooniverse projects, and heard more plans for the Zooniverse.

If you’re anywhere near Illinois, I strongly recommend the Adler Planetarium. On our first walk there, I joked to Chris about how if I ever get married I want it to be in a planetarium under a magnificent galaxy-filled sky, and he pointed ahead to show me that a wedding actually was taking place there!

I loved America and it was very sad to be on my way home (especially as one of the many friends I made had told me to look out for the aurora on the right – but not only did it not appear, we went so far over the North Pole that we stayed in daylight!). After setting off in late afternoon on Tuesday, I got home on Wednesday evening, and the very next day was bumbling around in my little office like an extremely clumsy zombie.

Thank you so very, very much to Chris and Jordan and everyone on the Galaxy Zoo team who arranged for me to come – it was the best present anyone could have given me – and for showing me round (including to excellent restaurants) and making sure I had such a wonderful time there. Thank you too to Rick Feinberg of AAS Press, who was invariably kind and extremely quick to help and explain things I needed to know. I hope more Zooites will be able to attend AAS conferences one day.

The August edition of the Astronomy Now magazine will contain six brief snippets on the conference from me – they’re just a few pretty starclusters out of a very big galaxy of delights, which will give you an idea of just what a wonderful conference it was!

Great Review of Galaxy Zoo in this week's Science

There’s a great review of Galaxy Zoo and its achievements in this week’s Science Magazine. The link to the article is here and the summary reads:

Galaxy Zoo Volunteers Share Pain and Glory of Research

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) has compiled a list of more than 1 million galaxies. To glean information about galaxy evolution, astronomers need to know what type of galaxy each one is: spiral, barred spiral, elliptical, or something else. The only reliable way to classify galaxies is to look at each one, but all the world’s astronomers working together couldn’t muster enough eyeballs for the task. A volunteer online effort called Galaxy Zoo, launched in 2007, has classified the entire catalog years ahead of schedule, bringing real statistical rigor to a field used to samples too small to support firm conclusions. The Galaxy Zoo team went on to ask more-complicated classification questions that led to studies they hadn’t thought possible. And in a discussion forum on the Galaxy Zoo Web site, volunteers have pointed to anomalies that on closer inspection have turned out to be genuinely new astronomical objects.

Unfortunately accessing the full article requires a subscription.

Galaxy Zoo Lunch at the AAS

Following our session on “Cosmic Evolution from Galaxy Zoo“, a number of the Galaxy Zoo group went to lunch at a local Boston seafood place. Ivy (Wong) took a few photos, which I thought you might like to see.


View down the table at lunch.


From right to left, Lucy, Kevin, Pamela, Carie and Chris.


From right to left, Alice, Brooke and me (busy talking).


By the way, the AAS abstracts are now up on the ADS, so I have put the links up on the previous post.

Galaxy Zoo Top Trumps!

Here in the Oxford University astrophysics group we’ve been thinking about astronomy games to play with the school and public groups that come to our telescope evenings — do you remember the “Top Trumps” card game? Well how about “Galaxy Top Trumps”?!

If you grew up in the UK then you may have spent your school lunch hour playing this game. It’s a really simple card game: each pack of Top Trumps has a theme – cars, footballers, fighter planes, now they cover pretty much anything you can imagine (except galaxies). For example, each card in a cars pack would have a picture of a car and a handful of numbers for that car, such as its top speed or fuel consumption. The player on the dealer’s left chooses one of these numbers, and players compare the number on the top card in each of their hands. The card with the best number wins the trick, and its owner collects the other cards. Play continues until one player holds all the cards, or lunch hour ends and double maths begins, whichever comes first!

At school we became experts on cars as a result of playing this game (did you know that a diesel Ford Fiesta uses three times less fuel per kilometre than a Land Rover Discovery?). So, we had a first go at making astronomical Top Trumps – we made a pack for stars, and one for planets, and are finding that playing the game is a great way of introducing these objects to people, showing them the wide range of things out there, and giving them an idea of their relative properties. (Did you know that Saturn’s moon Titan is bigger than Mercury? And Betelgeuse is 140,000 times brighter than the Sun?)

Now we’d like to make a Galaxy pack, and we’d like your help! We think galaxies are a perfect theme, and we should be able to design a pack that is fun to play and through which people can learn a little bit about the amazing objects in the Zoo. Designing a mathematically perfect pack can get complicated, as James Grime explains in this great video, so for now we just want to focus on cool galaxies and good numbers to pick!

So, which galaxies and which attributes? There are some starting thoughts below, but what we really want are your ideas! What numbers would you like to see on the cards? Are we missing an interesting class of object? Did we forget your favourite galaxy?! Let us know!

You can head on over to this new forum thread or leave a comment here!

We probably won’t be able to get telescope time to measure new numbers to put on the cards (apparently the Time Allocation Committees aren’t so keen on proposals that are motivated by Top Trumps!), so we need to select attributes that we can either look up or get pretty easily from public data like the SDSS. We think things like radius, stellar mass, colour, star formation rate, supermassive black hole mass and redshift might be good. But what do you think?

As for choosing the galaxies, the obvious place to start is with the best-known, prettiest nearby galaxies that no pack would be complete without: Centaurus A, Andromeda, the Sombrero galaxy and maybe the Omega Centauri globular cluster (Are globular clusters galaxies? It’s a good conversation starter!). Any others? Then we might add one each of the basic Hubble types: elliptical, S0, Sa, Sb, Sc and Irregular (let us know if you have a favourite!). Then with all the recent Galaxy Zoo work on bars, we could include both barred and unbarred examples of these — which would make the best cards? We might also want examples of some of the unusual samples defined by Zooites: green peas and red spirals. And what about particular Zoo favourites like Hanny’s Voorwerp? Does that belong in the galaxies pack?

Pretty galaxies on the BBC Big Screens

As part of National Science and Engineering Week, 11-20th March 2011 in the UK I was involved in the production of a series of 5 short videos called “From the Earth to the Edge of the Universe” which were made as a collaboration between Creative Technologies and the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth. They are going on the BBC Big Screens, apparently right across the UK and continuing up until the 2012 Olympics.

Bear with me, this isn’t just an advert. The reason for the post is that my segment is all about galaxy morphologies. I talk (briefly) about Galaxy Zoo and show the HST image of Hanny’s Voorwerp. I also describe some of the main morphological features of galaxies, and what I like about them. So I thought you might like to watch it (sorry I can’t figure out how to embed it – the below is just a screen shot).KLMvideo

Karen – From Earth To The Edge Of The Universe from CCi Live on Vimeo.

You can watch all 5 videos here.

Cheers, Karen.