Tag Archive | Galaxies

# Explaining clustering statistics we use to study the distribution of Galaxy Zoo galaxies

I’ve used some statistical tools to analyze the spatial distribution of Galaxy Zoo galaxies and to see whether we find galaxies with particular classifications in more dense environments or less dense ones. By “environment” I’m referring to the kinds of regions that these galaxies tend to be found: for example, galaxies in dense environments are usually strongly clustered in groups and clusters of many galaxies. In particular, I’ve used what we call “marked correlation functions,” which I’ve found are very sensitive statistics for identifying and quantifying trends between objects and their environments. This is also important from the perspective of models, since we think that massive clumps of dark matter are in the same regions as massive galaxy groups.

We’ve mainly used them in two papers, where we analyzed the environmental dependence of morphology and color and where we analyzed the environmental dependence of barred galaxies. These papers have been described a bit in this post andthis post. We’ve also had other Galaxy Zoo papers about similar subjects, especially this paper by Steven Bamford and this one by Kevin Casteels.

What I loved about these projects is that we obtained impressive results that nobody else had seen before, and it’s all thanks to the many many classifications that the citizen scientists have contributed. These statistics are useful only when one has large catalogs, and that’s exactly what we had in Galaxy Zoo 1 and 2. We have catalogs with visual classifications and type likelihoods that are ten times as large as ones other astronomers have used.

What are these “marked correlation functions”, you ask? Traditional correlation functions tell us about how objects are clustered relative to random clustering, and we usually write this as 1+ ξ. But we have lots of information about these galaxies, more than just their spatial positions. So we can weight the galaxies by a particular property, such as the elliptical galaxy likelihood, and then measure the clustering signal. We usually write this as 1+W. Then the ratio of (1+W)/(1+ξ), which is the marked correlation function M(r), tells us whether galaxies with high values of the weight are more dense or less dense environments on average. And if 1+W=1+ξ, or in other words M=1, then the weight is not correlated with the environment at all.

First, I’ll show you one of our main results from that paper using Galaxy Zoo 1 data. The upper panel shows the clustering of galaxies in the sample we selected, and it’s a function of projected galaxy separation (rp). This is something other people have measured before, and we already knew that galaxies are clustered more than random clustering. But then we weighted the galaxies by the GZ elliptical likelihood (based on the fraction of classifiers identifying the galaxies as ellipticals) and then took the (1+W)/(1+ξ) ratio, which is M(rp), and that’s shown by the red squares in the lower panel. When we use the spiral likelihoods, the blue squares are the result. This means that elliptical galaxies tend to be found in dense environments, since they have a M(rp) ratio that’s greater than 1, and spiral galaxies are in less dense environments than average. When I first ran these measurements, I expected kind of noisy results, but the measurements are very precise and they far exceeded my expectations. Without many visual classifications of every galaxy, this wouldn’t be possible.

Second, using Galaxy Zoo 2 data, we measured the clustering of disc galaxies, and that’s shown in the upper panel of the plot above. Then we weighted the galaxies by their bar likelihoods (based on the fractions of people who classified them as having a stellar bar) and measured the same statistic as before. The result is shown in the lower panel, and it shows that barred disc galaxies tend to be found in denser environments than average disc galaxies! This is a completely new result and had never been seen before. Astronomers had not detected this signal before mainly because their samples were too small, but we were able to do better with the classifications provided by Zooites. We argued that barred galaxies often reside in galaxy groups and that a minor merger or interaction with a neighboring galaxy can trigger disc instabilities that produce bars.

What kinds of science shall we use these great datasets and statistics for next? My next priority with Galaxy Zoo is to develop dark matter halo models of the environmental dependence of galaxy morphology. Our measurements are definitely good enough to tell us how spiral and elliptical morphologies are related to the masses of the dark matter haloes that host the galaxies, and these relations would be an excellent and new way to test models and simulations of galaxy formation. And I’m sure there are many other exciting things we can do too.

…One more thing: if you’re interested, you’re welcome to check out my own blog, where I occasionally write posts about citizen science.

# One Million for Zooniverse – and One for Galaxy Zoo!

Galaxy Zoo started in 2007 because astronomers had 1,000,000 galaxies that needed to be sorted, classified, and examined. After the incredible response from the public, the zookeepers realized that this kind of problem wasn’t limited to galaxies, nor even just to astronomy, and the Zooniverse was born.

Now, seven actual years, close to 30 projectsmore than 60 publications, and hundreds of years’ worth of human effort later, the Zooniverse has just registered its 1,000,000th volunteer. Given that Galaxy Zoo was the project that led to the creation of the Zooniverse, it seems fitting that its millionth citizen scientist joined to classify galaxies! That volunteer (whose identity we won’t divulge unless s/he gives us permission) joins over 400,000 others who have classified galaxies near and far. That number is 40% of the Zooniverse’s overall total — meaning that, while Galaxy Zoo has a large and vibrant community of volunteers and scientists, most people who join Zooniverse start off contributing to a different project. Many of them try other projects after their first: over on the Zooniverse blog Rob described the additions we’ve made to the Zooniverse Home area so that everyone who brought us to a million can see their own contribution “fingerprint” on the Zooniverse. Here’s what mine currently looks like:

The blue at the left is Galaxy Zoo; the dark orange is Snapshot Serengeti. #addict

Our millionth volunteer gets a cheesy prize (but hopefully useful: a Zooniverse tote bag and mug), and while we’d like to give that same prize to the 999,999 who came before him/her and to everyone who contributes to Galaxy Zoo and all Zooniverse projects, perhaps it’s more fitting that we say to everyone what’s really on our mind right now:

Galactic-Scale Gratitude. You all are awesome.

# The Green Valley is a Red Herring

Great news everybody! The latest Galaxy Zoo 1 paper has been accepted by MNRAS and has appeared on astro-ph: http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.4814

In this paper, we take a look at the most crucial event in the life of a galaxy: the end of star formation. We often call this process “quenching” and many astrophysicists have slightly different definitions of quenching. Galaxies are the place where cosmic gas condenses and, if it gets cold and dense enough, turns into stars. The resulting stars are what we really see as traditional optical astronomers.

Not all stars shine the same way though: stars much more massive than our sun are very bright and shine in a blue light as they are very hot. They’re also very short-lived. Lower mass stars take a more leisurely pace and don’t shine as bright (they’re not as hot). This is why star-forming galaxies are blue, and quiescent galaxies (or “quenched” galaxies) are red: once star formation stops, the bluest stars die first and aren’t replaced with new ones, so they leave behind only the longer-lived red stars for us to observe as the galaxy passively evolves.

Example images of galaxies classified by you. There are blue, green and red spirals, and blue, green and red ellipticals.

As @penguin galaxy (aka Alice) put it….

Blue Ellipticals & Red Spirals
The received wisdom in galaxy evolution had been that spirals are blue, and ellipticals are red, meaning that spirals form new stars (or rather: convert gas into stars) and ellipticals do not form new stars (they have no gas to convert to stars). Since you’re taking part in Galaxy Zoo, you know that this isn’t entirely true: there are blue (star-forming) ellipticals and red (passive) spirals. It’s those unusual objects that we started Galaxy Zoo for, and in this paper they help us piece together how, why and when galaxies shut down their star formation. You can already conclude from the fact that blue ellipticals and red spirals exist that there is no one-to-one correlation between a galaxy’s morphology and whether or not it’s forming stars.

The colour-mass diagram of galaxies, split by shape. On the right: all galaxies. On the left: just the ellipticals (or early-types) on top and just the spirals (or late-types) on the bottom. On the x-axis is the galaxy mass. On the y-axis is galaxy colour. Bottom is blue (young stars) and top is red (no young stars).

Blue, Red and…. Green?
A few years back, astronomers noticed that not all galaxies are either blue and star forming or red and dead. There was a smaller population of galaxies in between those two, which they termed the “green valley” (the origin of the term is rather interesting and we talk about it in this Google+ hangout). So how do these “green” galaxies fit in? The natural conclusion was that these “in between” galaxies are the ones who are in the process of shutting down their star formation. They’re the galaxies which are in the process of quenching. Their star formation rate is dropping, which is why they have fewer and fewer young blue stars. With time, star formation should cease entirely and galaxies would become red and dead.

The Green Valley is a Red Herring
Ok, why is this green valley a red herring you ask? Simple: the green valley galaxies aren’t a single population of similar galaxies, but rather two completely different populations doing completely different things! And what’s the biggest evidence that this is the case? Some of them are “green spirals” and others are “green ellipticals”! (Ok, you probably saw that coming from a mile away).

So, we have both green spirals and green ellipticals. First: how do we know they must be doing very different things? If you look at the colour-mass diagram of only spirals and only ellipticals, we start to get some hints. Most ellipticals are red. A small number are blue, and a small number are green. If the blue ellipticals turn green and then red, they must do so quickly, or there would be far more green ellipticals. There would be a traffic jam in the green valley. So we suspect that quenching – the end of star formation – in ellipticals happens quickly.

In the case of spirals, we see lots of blue ones, quite a few green one and then red ones (Karen Masters has written several important Galaxy Zoo papers about these red spirals). If spirals slowly turn red, you’d expect them to start bunching up in the middle: the green “valley” which is revealed to be no such thing amongst spirals.

We can time how fast a galaxy quenches. On the x-axis is the optical colour, dominated by young-ish stars, while on the y-axis is a UV colour, dominated by the youngest, most short-lived stars.

Galaxy Quenching time scales
We can confirm this difference in quenching time scales by looking at the ultraviolet and optical colours of spirals and ellipticals in the green valley. What we see is that spirals start becoming redder in optical colours as their star formation rate goes down, but they are still blue in the ultraviolet. Why? Because they are still forming at least some baby stars and they are extremely bright and so blue that they emit a LOT of ultraviolet light. So even as the overall population of young stars declines, the galaxy is still blue in the UV.

Ellipticals, on the other hand, are much redder in the UV. This is because their star formation rate isn’t dropping slowly over time like the spirals, but rather goes to zero in a very short time. So, as the stellar populations age and become redder, NO new baby stars are added and the UV colour goes red.

Galaxies form stars because they have gas. This gas comes in from their cosmological surroundings, cools down into a disk and then turns into stars. Galaxies thus have a cosmological supply and a reservoir of gas (the disk). We also know observationally that gas turns into stars according to a specific recipe, the Schmidt-Kennicutt law. Basically that law says that in any dynamical time (the characteristic time scale of the gas disk), a small fraction (around 2%) of that gas turns into stars. Star formation is a rather inefficient process. With this in mind, we can explain the behaviour of ellipticals and spirals in terms of what happens to their gas.

A cartoon version of our picture of how spiral galaxies shut down their star formation.

Spirals are like Zombies
Spirals quench their star formation slowly over maybe a billion years or more. This can be explained by simply shutting off the cosmological supply of gas. The spiral is still left with its gas reservoir in the disk to form stars with. As time goes on, more and more of the gas is used up, and the star formation rate drops. Eventually, almost no gas is left and the originally blue spiral bursting with blue young stars has fewer and fewer young stars and so turns green and eventually red. That means spirals are a bit like zombies. Something shuts off their supply of gas. They’re already dead. But they have their gas reservoir, so they keep moving, moving not knowing that they’re already doomed.

A cartoon version of how we think ellipticals shut down their star formation.

Ellipticals life fast, die young
The ellipticals on the other hand quench their star formation really fast. That means it’s not enough to just shut off the gas supply, you also have to remove the gas reservoir in the galaxy. How do you do that? We’re not really sure, but it’s suspicious that most blue ellipticals look like they recently experienced a major galaxy merger. There are also hints that their black holes are feeding, so it’s possible an energetic outburst from their central black holes heated and ejected their gas reservoir in a short episode. But we don’t know for sure…

So that’s the general summary for the paper. Got questions? Ping me on twitter at @kevinschawinski

# Galaxy Zoo and undergraduate research: spiral arms, colors, and brightnesses

The guest post below is by Zach Pace, an undergraduate physics student at the University of Buffalo. Zach worked at the University of Minnesota during the summer of 2013 through the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Zach is continuing to work with Galaxy Zoo data as part of his senior thesis.

Hi, everyone–

My name is Zach Pace.  I’m an undergraduate physics student from the University at Buffalo, and I’ve been working on the Galaxy Zoo 2 project at the University of Minnesota since late May with Kyle Willett and Lucy Fortson.  My investigation has been twofold:  I have been diagramming specific morphological categories in color-magnitude space, and also fitting those data to mathematical functions.

As many readers probably know, a galaxy’s magnitude (overall brightness in the red band, on a log scale) and a galaxy’s color (the difference between the blue magnitude and a red band) are two important quantities for determining what a galaxy might look like (and how it might evolve).  Brighter galaxies have more mass (more stars produce more light, of course), and bluer galaxies have a more recent star formation history (this is because young, bright stars tend to be large, bright, and blue).  In terms of the whole population, we know, for instance, that elliptical galaxies tend to concentrate in a red sequence, and have typical colors between 2.25 and 2.75.  Conversely, the vast majority of spiral galaxies concentrate in a blue cloud between colors 1.25 and 2.0.  These two populations are clearly separated in color-magnitude space (this can be seen in the accompanying 2-D histogram, made from Zoo 2 data).

Color-magnitude diagram (CMD) for objects in Galaxy Zoo 2. The lines show fits to the two main populations of elliptical (red) and spiral (blue) galaxies, following the method of Baldry et al. (2004). The green line shows an approximate separation between them.

One of the main goals of Zoo 2 is to gauge the extent to which morphology informs physical characteristics like color and magnitude, so my objective for the summer was to come up with good representations of color and magnitude for all of the smaller sub-populations in Zoo 2.

Several of my results were interesting and surprising.  For instance, it has been suggested that spiral galaxies with more arms and spiral galaxies with tighter arm winding (which is to say, a shallower pitch angle) tend to be brighter and bluer.  This can be intuitively understood as follows:  tighter winding of spiral arms and the presence of more spiral arms indicate, on average, denser gas clouds in those arms, which is tied to increased star formation and bluer color.  However, I wasn’t able to measure this in the Zoo 2 data (all the differences were on the order of the histograms’ bin size, about 0.1 magnitude, or about a 10% difference in brightness).  This suggests that spiral galaxies, no matter arm multiplicity or winding, are drawn from the same base population.

Color-magnitude diagram (CMD) for spirals in GZ2, split by the number of spiral arms identified in each galaxy. The distribution of colors and magnitudes for galaxies are statistically similar, no matter what the number of spiral arms.

I also came across something unexpected when looking at bulge sizes in face-on disk galaxies.  The distribution of galaxies classified by users as bulgeless is starkly different from the distribution of obvious bulge and bulge-dominated galaxies.  Furthermore, the population with a bulge that is just noticeable seems to form an intermediate population between the bulgeless and bulge.  This observation is also borne out in edge-on disk galaxies: the population of bulgeless edge-on galaxies has a similar shape to the population of face-on galaxies, albeit with stronger reddening on the bright end.

Color-magnitude diagram (CMD) for disk galaxies in Galaxy Zoo 2, split by the relative size of the central bulge. Galaxies that appear to have no central bulge (top) have very different colors and luminosity than those with dominant bulges (bottom).

To fit the distributions, I used a method pioneered about 10 years ago by Ivan Baldry, which fits one parameter after another in our profile functions to find a distribution that converges onto the best fit.  It works okay (but not great) for the whole sample, and it fails pretty badly when working with the smaller sub-populations.  This is because I have to fit many parameters at once, and do that a bunch of times in a row for the fit to converge, so there are a lot of points of failure.  I’m working now at Buffalo towards finding a different and better fitting routine, which will allow us to represent more distributions mathematically.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.

# Galaxy Zoo Continues to Evolve

Over the years the public has seen more than a million galaxies via Galaxy Zoo, and nearly all of them had something in common: we tried to get as close as possible to showing you what the galaxy would actually look like with the naked eye if you were able to see them with the resolving power of some of the world’s most advanced telescopes. Starting today, we’re branching out from that with the addition of over 70,000 new galaxy images (of some our old favorites) at wavelengths the human eye wouldn’t be able to see.

Just to be clear, we haven’t always shown images taken at optical wavelengths. Galaxies from the CANDELS survey, for example, are imaged at near-infrared* wavelengths. But they are also some of the most distant galaxies we’ve ever seen, and because of the expansion of the universe, most of the light that the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) captured for those galaxies had been “stretched” from its original optical wavelength (note: we call the originally emitted wavelength the rest-frame wavelength).

Optical light provides a huge amount of information about a galaxy (or a voorwerpje, etc.), and we are still a long way from having extracted every bit of information from optical images of galaxies. However, the optical is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the other wavelengths give different and often complementary information about the physical processes taking place in galaxies. For example, more energetic light in the ultraviolet tells us about higher-energy phenomena, like emission directly from the accretion disk around a supermassive black hole, or light from very massive, very young stars. As a stellar population ages and the massive stars die, the older, redder stars left behind emit more light in the near-infrared – so by observing in the near-IR, we get to see where the old stars are.

The near-IR has another very useful property: the longer wavelengths can mostly pass right by interstellar dust without being absorbed or scattered. So images of galaxies in the rest-frame infrared can see through all but the thickest dust shrouds, and we can get a more complete picture about stars and dust in galaxies by looking at them in the near-IR.

Even though the optical SDSS image (left) is deeper than the near-IR UKIDSS image (right), you can still see that the UKIDSS image is less affected by the dust lanes seen at left.

Starting today, we are adding images of galaxies taken with the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) for the recently-completed UKIDSS project. UKIDSS is the largest, deepest survey of the sky at near-infrared wavelengths, and the typical seeing is close to (often better than) the typical seeing of the SDSS. Every UKIDSS galaxy that we’re showing is also in SDSS, which means that volunteers at Galaxy Zoo will be providing classifications for the same galaxies in both optical and infrared wavelengths, in a uniform way. This is incredibly valuable: each of those wavelength ranges are separately rich with information, and by combining them we can learn even more about how the stars in each galaxy have evolved and are evolving, and how the material from which new stars might form (as traced by the dust) is distributed in the galaxy.

1 galaxy, 4 redshifts.

In addition to the more than 70,000 UKIDSS near-infrared images we have added to the active classification pool, we are also adding nearly 7,000 images that have a different purpose: to help us understand how a galaxy’s classification evolves as the galaxy gets farther and farther away from the telescope. To that end, team member Edmond Cheung has taken SDSS images of nearby galaxies that volunteers have already classified, “placed” them at much higher redshifts, then “observed” them as we would have seen them with HST in the rest-frame optical. By classifying these redshifted galaxies**, we hope to answer the question of how the classifications of distant galaxies might be subtly different due to image depth and distance effects. It’s a small number of galaxies compared to the full sample of those in either Galaxy Zoo: Hubble or CANDELS, but it’s an absolutely crucial part of making the most of all of your classifications.

As always, Galaxy Zoo continues to evolve as we use your classifications to answer fundamental questions of galaxy evolution and those answers lead to new and interesting questions. We really hope you enjoy these new images, and we expect that there will soon be some interesting new discussions on Talk (where there will, as usual, be more information available about each galaxy), and very possibly new discoveries to be made.

Thanks for classifying!

* “Infrared” is a really large wavelength range, much larger than optical, so scientists modify the term to describe what part of it they’re referring to. Near-infrared means the wavelengths are only a bit too long (red) to be seen by the human eye; there’s also mid-infrared and far-infrared, which are progressively longer-wavelength. For context, far-infrared wavelengths can be more than a hundred times longer than near-infrared wavelengths, and they’re closer in energy to microwaves and radio waves than optical light. Each of the different parts of the infrared gives us information on different types of physics.

** You might notice that these galaxies have a slightly different question tree than the rest of the galaxies: that’s because, where these galaxies have been redshifted into the range where they would have been observed in the Galaxy Zoo: Hubble sample, we’re asking the same questions we asked for that sample, so there are some slight differences.

# 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.

There’s a lot to that legacy already, and it’s still being written.

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.

Karen explains her simple and clear diagram showing different galaxy evolutionary processes.

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):

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.

Left to Right: Tom, Kevin, Bob, Amit, Ed, Chris S, Bill, Kyle, Chris L, Ivy, Brooke, Karen, Julie

# We got (some) observing time!

Great news everybody!

We applied for radio observations with the e-MERLIN network of radio telescopes in the UK. The e-MERLIN network can link up radio dishes across the UK to form a really, really large radio telescope using the interferometry technique. Linking all these radio dishes means you get the resolution equivalent to a country-sized telescope. You don’t alas get the sensitivity, as the collecting area is still just that of the sum of the dishes you are using.

The e-MERLIN network (from http://www.e-merlin.ac.uk) of radio telescopes.

Our proposal was to observe the Voorwerpjes. We wanted to take a really high resolution look at what the black holes are doing right now by looking for nuclear radio jets. The Voorwerpjes, like their larger cousin, Hanny’s Voorwerp, tell us that black holes can go from a feeding frenzy to a starvation diet in a short time scale (for a galaxy, that is). We really want to see what happens to the central engine of the black hole as that happens. There’s a suspicion that as the black hole stops gobbling matter as fast as it can, it starts “switching state” and launches a radio jet that starts putting a lot of kinetic energy (think hitting the galaxy with a hammer).

So, we want to look for such radio jets in the Voorwerpjes. We asked for a LOT of time, and the e-MERLIN time allocation committee approved our request…

… partially. Rather than giving us the entire time, they gave us time for just one source to prove that we can do the observations, and that they are as interesting as we claimed. So, we’re trying to decide which target to pick (argh! so hard).

# 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.

The circled stars (plus a lot of dark matter you can’t see) are Segue 1, one of the smallest galaxies we know about. To read more on this, click the image.

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)!

# 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.

Okay, that’s kinda cool.

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.

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.

One of the most fundamental plots in astronomy.

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!