Live from ZooCon

Hello for the Martin Wood Lecture Theatre in Oxford’s Department of Physics which is playing host to a crowd of Zooniverse volunteers and project members for ZooCon13. We’re recording the talks for later broadcast, but as a sneak preview I thought I’d liveblog the event.

Talk 1 – SpaceWarps

We’re kicking off with Aprajita Verma from Oxford and from Space Warps, the newest Zooniverse astronomy project. As is traditional when talking about gravitational lensing – the bending of light by matter, she’s using Phil Marshall’s Galaxy in a Wine Glass video.

Galaxy In a Wine Glass

SpaceWarps is much needed – LSST, the next generation of survey telescope, will produce something like 10000 galaxy scale lenses. It’s designed to map a very wide area of sky, which is perfect for finding rare things like lenses – and this will produce a lot of work as traditional lens hunting is very labour intensive. Not only do they need to be found, but they then need to be modeled.

There are three lenses in this image - one real, and two simulated. Spotting the difference is hard...
There are three lenses in this image – one real, and two simulated. Spotting the difference is hard…

Luckily – we have effort! 2 million 6 million classifications have been recorded already from over 8000 people. Particularly pleasing for me is that 40% of those people are discussing things on Talk – this is essential as lenses are complicated things and the interesting ones are going to be found through discussion. The team are doing dynamic assessment of the results, retiring images that no longer need classification – I especially liked their division of classifiers into ‘Optimists’ – who get lenses right but also get excited about lots of things that aren’t lenses – ‘Pessimists’ – who correctly dismiss non-lenses but get rid of lenses too – the ‘Astute’, who get everything right and the ‘Obtuse’, those who get everything wrong. Luckily, we have lots of astute classifiers and almost none who are obtuse, as evidenced by a sneak preview of the first few discoveries (more on those next week).

Talk 2 – Cosmic Evolution from Galaxy Zoo

Next up is Karen Masters of Portsmouth and Galaxy Zoo, talking about science results from the Zooniverse’s oldest project. It’s already clear there is lots of ground to cover in this conference and Karen’s bounding through a brief history of observational astronomy, noting the conceptual leap required to go from thinking about the Milky Way, our galaxy, and an expanding Universe filled with billions of the blighters. Karen just showed a cool movie showing the parts of the sky that have been mapped by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which provided images for the early incarnations of Galaxy Zoo.

A Galaxy in need of classifications.
A Galaxy in need of classifications.

In going through the history of Galaxy Zoo, Karen reminds me that the original BBC news story on Galaxy Zoo claims that we hope that 30,000 people will eventually take part. We smashed that on day one if I remember correctly. (There’s also a factual error in that news story – if anyone tells me what it is via Twitter (@chrislintott) or in person they can have a pint). While I relieve ancient history, Karen’s talking about her work on red spirals: most spirals are blue, but Galaxy Zoo helped us find lots of red ones and Karen says that the Milky Way may even be on its way to becoming one. The work on the red spirals was part of a serious shift in how we think about galaxy formation – a few years back that story was all about mergers but now it’s thought that lots of galaxies form and evolve (including fading from being a blue spiral to a red spiral) in slower, less spectacular ways.

Of course, one of the advantages of citizen science that Galaxy Zoo demonstrated was the ability of classifiers to discover the weird and wonderful. Recent examples include the bulgeless galaxies – spirals which are guaranteed not to have had a merger within the last few billion years – and a set of galaxies (mostly red spirals!) with massive bars at their centre. In even better news, we have time on the Very Large Array (I REPEAT – WE HAVE TIME ON THE VERY LARGE ARRAY!) to follow up on these things.

WE GOT TIME ON THE VERY LARGE ARRAY (this is a picture of some of it)
WE GOT TIME ON THE VERY LARGE ARRAY (this is a picture of some of it)

I’m really quite excited about the VLA. I’ve always wanted to use it.

Talk 3 – New Uses for Old Weather

We’re taking a break from astronomy with Philip Brohan from the Old Weather project – he’s explaining that scientists need historical observations to constrain their models of how the climate behaves. Lacking the ability to stick a weather satellite in the Tardis and head back in time, we need to scrabble around for old records, an idea that dates back to Beaufort of wind scale fame.

Philip in the gloaming, beneath an Old Weather slide.
Philip in the gloaming, beneath an Old Weather slide.

This is great, but the supercomputers can’t read the 73 million logbook pages we’d like to sort through – hence the need for volunteers. So far more than a million logbook pages have been processed by the project – a small fraction of the total needed but a very useful quantity! Most of these volunteers are attracted by the historical information that the logs fortuitously contain – Philip is currently beneath a slide showing a log book containing both the information that the ship’s company are fitted with seal-skin boots, and that 23 dogs are received on board. (Why? Surely not for food…).

It’s all got a bit gruesome now – six dead bodies are being placed in alcohol. Luckily we’re swiftly on to HMS Tarantula, where their anemometer is infested with ants. The current set of logbooks have more famous events; in particular, the logbooks of the Jeannette show the discovery of the Arctic island now named after it (upon which nothing but ice sheets grow). The fact that we have these logbooks at all is a miracle; the ship was crushed by the ice and the crew (most of whom perished) chose to carry the scientific records with them as they struggled to safety.

Images from and about the Jeanette, including in the bottom left an artist's impression of the chest of logbooks being saved.
Images from and about the Jeanette, including in the bottom left an artist’s impression of the chest of logbooks being saved.

As well as the climate and the history, Phil says, the third important aspect of Old Weather is the people. The project’s made particularly good use of the forum, which has steered the project in new directions and provided a home for discussion of things we never thought to look for, as well as art and verse. The latter was particularly inspired by the tragic loss of the chocolate aboard the HMS Manuta. Before rolling the credits listing his more than 17,000 collaborators, Philip ended these tales by noting that to make a serious dent on the archives we need to speed up by a factor of ten, a challenge the Zooniverse is happy to accept.

Talk 4 – The Future of Galaxy Zoo

Back to the Universe now, and Oxford’s Brooke Simmons is able to start her talk on what’s coming up for Galaxy Zoo by reminding the crowd that the data release paper for the second version of Galaxy Zoo is now with the referee. At about 30 pages, it’s as short as it could possibly be, showing the amount of effort that goes into dealing with classifications received via a large citizen science project.

Brooke’s now explaining the need – with Galaxy Zoo trying to reach back to a time not that long after the Big Bang – for us to use all sorts of tests to understand how our classifications work. Showing images of the same galaxies shifted to higher and higher redshifts (further and further away) it’s clear that classifications will change just because it’s harder to see what’s going on when galaxies get further away. We’re also playing with supercomputer simulations of the evolution of galaxies which shows how things change over time.

It’s not all about simulations, though – we’re thinking about moving beyond the optical range of the spectrum and looking at galaxies in the ultraviolet and infrared. The former, from a satellite called GALEX, shows only the youngest starts, the latter, from a survey called UKIDSS which covers about a third of the Sloan area, the dust and older stars. Also on the agenda are more advanced tools, like those which power the Galaxy Zoo Navigator which allows primarily school groups to look at the statistics of their classifications.

Correction I wasn’t listening properly to Aprajita; Spacewarps got 2 million classifications in the first week, and at the time of ZooCon was over 6 million. I’ve corrected the post. 1st July 2013.


12 thoughts on “Live from ZooCon”

    1. It was … did you get a ‘your comment is awaiting moderation’ (or similar) note on it, after you posted it? In my experience, comments may get published immediately (no apparent moderation), or wait for weeks (and much between) … My guess is that the author of the blog post can set the ‘comment policy’ individually (this blog post requires moderation, that one doesn’t), and if they set it at ‘moderation’, you have to wait until they get around to reading the comments before they get published (or not).

      1. Hi

        The default is that comments are held in moderation if they are the first a particular commentator has posted on a particular blog – this seems to be a nice balance between enabling discussion and preventing spam which would otherwise quickly populate the site.


  1. A very useful summary. I had missed several important points, having considerable difficulty understanding the higher-pitched voices with rapid delivery in American accents. Partly to do with the echoey acoustics, I think, but also no doubt my age!

    1. Thanks David, yes there was a bit of an echo, I was wondering where the best place to sit, so I ended up at the back, where (like you), I missed some interesting bits.

      As regards “Moderation “, after I posted something, the system asked me for my password, which it should have asked me beforehand, so I wasn’t sure if my original post had gone or not. I think there are two sets of passwords operating, as recently we all had to re-set our passwords. Really, they ought to be linked together, but this might happen.

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