Category Archives: News

‘Citizen’ science and ‘real’ science

While the old maxim about all publicity being good publicity isn’t exactly true, it is always a good feeling when one of our projects gets mentioned in the press, and so I was delighted to see the New York Times highlighting everyone’s favourite Voorwerp (and its discoverer) today.

The rest of the article highlights some of the other well known examples of ‘citizen science’, from SETI@home to Fold.it, but also includes some more critical comments. For example, David Weinberger from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard comments ‘These people are not doing the work of scientists…They are doing the work of scientific instruments.’

From the way the article’s written, it seems that it was supposed to refer to more traditional citizen science projects which involve collecting data, rather than our kind that involves analysis. Without more context, it’s also difficult to know whether this was meant pejoratively, but this sort of criticism – that projects like Galaxy Zoo don’t offer participants the chance to behave as ‘proper’ scientists – comes up a lot, and I think it raises some interesting questions. For starters, before we can answer the question of whether Galaxy Zoo meets such a criteria we need to decide what ‘doing the work of scientists’ is.

I’m well aware that there’s a whole literature on this subject, which I don’t intend to review here, but for the sake of argument let’s say that a ‘proper’ scientist is someone who, informed by a knowledge of existing understanding in a particular field (we hope, anyway), comes up with an idea, and then, through experiment, theory or computer modelling, or increasingly by exploring existing data, seeks to test that idea before reporting the results in a journal or at a conference.

If that’s our model, it’s clear that a random visitor to a Zooniverse project isn’t functioning as a proper scientist. It was the Galaxy Zoo science team who read the literature and realised that sorting galaxies by their shape would be of interest, and who take the results of the ‘experiment’ (in this case, running a citizen science project), interpret them and write them up. If you push the analogy further then, sure, the ‘scientific instrument’ used to investigate galaxy shape includes not only the website, but also the visitors to it.

That seems to confirm the lowly status of the Zooites – no longer citizen scientists, just ‘high-functioning cogs in a distributed machine’ as the article has it. Except that that’s exactly how scientists behave a lot of the time. There may be scientists out there who only think grand thoughts, whose particular genius requires only, in the reverse of Edison’s famous formula, one percent perspiration and ninety-nine percent inspiration.

I’ve never met any of them. When students ask me whether they should do a PhD or not, my answer is likely to be influenced by whether they’ve come to terms with the idea that a lot of the day to day effort of science involves not seeking flashes of inspiration, but hard, repetitive work. It might be sitting in the field waiting for the lesser mongolian tree frog to do something interesting, or it might be attempting to understand why your simulation of star formation just won’t compile, but it’ll be there. Before Galaxy Zoo came along, individual scientists classified the galaxies themselves.

Perhaps they too were just cogs in the scientific machine. But this is now an argument about semantics, rather that status. Galaxy Zoo and projects like it open up part of the scientific process to participation by anyone, and I don’t think the wonder of that idea is diminished by the fact that for most people, most of the time we need professionals for the rest of it.
When I was a kid, I used to count meteors and send it the results of my count to the British Astronomical Association. The wonder at the idea that I could do something that in some tiny way contributed to our knowledge of the Universe was totally unaffected by the realisation that it would be others who analysed the results.

This highlights an important difference between some of the new citizen science projects, and older endeavours such as meteor watching. The Galaxy Zoo site provides enough information for those who are interested to take control of the entire scientific process. Links to professional archives are available for each galaxy, the data set is made available to all (albeit after a delay), and we are building a suite of tools to lower the barriers to this more advanced participation. There are a steady stream of volunteers appearing as authors on Zoo publications because of their contributions, working alongside the science team. The investigations of things like the Galaxy Zoo peas are being driven by prompting from our ever-alert community of volunteers. In testing and refining our projects, successive generations of volunteers are involved in designing future ‘experiments’. I know of several Zooites who have gone back to formal education, inspired to increase their level of scientific knowledge by participation in the project.

In other words, if you need to run your own projects, or to acquire a publication record to be a ‘citizen scientist’, then consider it an aspirational label. The Zooniverse provides everything you need to do that, although, for now, the barriers are still high. Otherwise, if you contribute to our understanding of the Universe in however minor a fashion, then I’ll call you a scientist, and I look forward to being able to drop the distinction between professional and citizen.

Happy Holidays!

We’ve had a lot of fun with our 2010 Zooniverse Advent Calendar (and hope you now know what Rick Rolling is if you didn’t before). Over the past 24 days we have launched the ninth and tenth Zooniverse projects: the Milky Way Project and Planet Hunters – which are both running along very well. You can find the whole list of Zooniverse projects on our main site. We have also significantly updated Galaxy Zoo, created a host of author posters for your enjoyment and had a bit of fun along the way.

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As well as clicking away on your favourite Zooniverse projects this holiday period, you might also want to look up and catch the International Space Station as flies by. The ISSwave runs from today until New Year’s Eve and is hoping to get as many people as possible out to wave at the people aboard the ISS as it flies overhead. It’s a wonderful project and we hope you’ll try and take part. There is more information about ISSwave and hoe to get involved over on the official site.

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For our UK Zooites, there is a special event in early January that you might want to look out for. On BBC Two from January 3-5th three special Stargazing Live programmes are taking place. Each day will focus on a different aspect of astronomy, covering a different special event in the sky. The Zooniverse are involved and we hope you will be too!

Have a very merry Christmas – or whatever you are doing over the holidays – and we hope you’ll find a Zooniverse project to keep you amused between mince pies.

Planet Hunters

We are pleased to announce the debut of (another!) new Zooniverse project: Planet Hunters! This time we want you to help us find planets around other stars (exoplanets) using data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

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NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is one of the most powerful tools in the hunt for extrasolar planets. The Kepler data set is unprecedented and has incredible photometric precision. Before Kepler, the only star monitored this precisely was our own Sun. The lightcurves reveal subtle variability that has never before been documented. Kepler lightcurves are were made publicly available with the first data release this past June and the next release scheduled for February 2011. We are very excited here at Planet Hunters to get our hands on them!

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The Kepler Team computers are sifting through the data, but we at Planet Hunters are betting that there will be planets which can only be found via the remarkable human ability for pattern recognition. This is a gamble, a bet, if you will, on the ability of humans to beat machines just occasionally. It may be that no new planets are found or that computers have the job down to a fine art. That’s ok. For science to progress sometimes we have to do experiments, and although it may not seem like it at the time negative results are as valuable as positive ones. Most of the lightcurves will be flat, devoid of transit signals but it’s possible that you might be the first to know that a star somewhere out there in the Milky Way has a companion, just as our Sun does.

Fancy giving it a try? If you do, you could be the first to spot an new planet – it may be a Jupiter-size behemoth or even an Earth-sized rock. If you want to take part in our amazing experiment you’ll be playing with cutting-edge web technology. You’ll need one of the most modern browsers around (Safari, Chrome, Firefox or Opera) and you’ll need an up-to-date version if possible. We are testing the limits of citizen science on the web and hope that you’ll come along for the ride. We hope to bring support for older browsers in early 2011.

So, come join our adventure and log on to Planet Hunters now!

350,000 Zooniverse Users

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What an amazing festive present for us at Zooniverse HQ: the Zooniverse has signed up its 350,000th user! That’s a lot of people! There are now more people in the Zooniverse than there are in Iceland (or Belize or nearly the Bahamas)! We soon hope to take on Malta.

350,000 is roughly the amount the world’s population increases in two days! This means that the Zooniverse is big enough to fill nearly 4 Wembley Stadiums and over 8.5 Wrigley Fields! We are now more than twice the size of the world’s largest stadium in North Korea!

On a tactical note, there are now only 12 armies in the world that are larger than the Zooniverse user base (China, USA, India, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Vietnam and Mynamar). That means we can take on any nation in Europe – though not Iceland as they don’t have an army. Irony.

Standing side-by-side the Zooniverse could now fill the Vatican or hand-in-hand we could get half way around Saturn’s moon Mimas. We weigh the same as about 70 fully-loaded 747s and output a combined 42 Megawatts of energy – so we’ve a way to go before we can rival most power stations.

Assuming Santa delivers to 6.5 billion people this Christmas – it will take him just over 7 seconds to deliver to 350,000 people. Imagine how good he’s be at classifying galaxies! If only he had the time…

[Thanks to Creative Commons and Flickr user Tochis for portions of the image used in this post, which itself contains 350,000 pixels. Also: anyone noticed that the 14th is a really big day on the advent calendar?]

Zooniverse Advent Calendar

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There’s a lot going on at Zooniverse HQ this festive season. As well as a new coffee machine we have several things to share with you over the next few weeks so we decided to create a super-special Zooniverse Advent Calendar. The calendar will begin updating tomorrow, linking to various news that we’d like to share from the various Zooniverse sites.

We haven’t figured out how to send chocolate over the web (yet) so for now you’ll have to make do with other treats, such as special images, downloads and even a couple of very big pieces of news!

So Merry Winterval, Happy Christmas, Jolly Hannuka, Joyous TV Time – or whatever you are celebrating this festive season. We hope you enjoy the Zooniverse’s daily seasonal, online treats.

The Zooniverse Goes Historical

Today sees the launch of another Zooniverse project – and it’s something a little bit different. Old Weather asks you to journey back to the early years of the twentieth century, and comb through Royal Naval logbooks in search of climate data.

It’s surprising, but one of the major problems in testing models that predict the Earth’s climate is in obtaining decent historical data. Dedicated officers on board ship took readings every four hours, but in order for this information to be of use to climate scientists we need to turn it into a form computers can read – and that’s where you come in. The reward for doing this is following along with the voyages of the ships.

HMS Caroline

Most of our first set of logs comes from the First World War, but the stories include those of a range of historically-important ships including Battle of Jutland-survivor HMS Caroline, which is still in existence in Belfast (see above image), HMS Defence and HMS Invincible, which were both blown up at Jutland with the loss of most of their crews.

We also have the records of less well-known ships including HMS Dwarf, which on service in the Cameroons in 1914 suffered a boat attack similar to the one mounted by Humphrey Bogart’s character in the movie The African Queen, and river gunboats such as HMS Gnat, HMS Mantis and HMS Moth which patrolled the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates in a military expedition to Iraq.

Whichever ship you choose to join, we hope you’ll enjoy taking a trip with Old Weather. What’s the weather like when you are?

[The image on this post is of the HMS Caroline as she is today, in Belfast docks. This image is courtesy of Flickr user weelise]

Citizen Cyberscience Summit

Galaxy Zoo and the whole Zooniverse will be well represented at the upcoming Citizen Cyberscience Summit. This event, held at King’s College London on 2-3 September 2010, has been organised in order to showcase recent examples of online citizen science and provide a forum for discussing the impact, potential and future directions of such projects.

In the Thursday afternoon session Steven Bamford, astrophysicist and Zooniverse science director, will deliver a talk giving a brief overview of Galaxy Zoo, the wealth of science that it is generating, and the development of the Zooniverse. Following that there will be a panel session featuring two long-term Zooites, Jules and Hanny, which will discuss why people volunteer their time for science projects, what they learn from it, and how social networking helps science. Finally, on Friday morning, Philip Brohan from the UK Met Office will give a sneak preview of a new Zooniverse project that we are currently developing. There are lots of other interesting speakers too, see the programme for details.

The point of this summit is promote discussion between everyone currently involved, or who would benefit from getting involved, in citizen science. That includes scientists, educators, and most importantly you: the participants, without whom citizen science wouldn’t exist. If you’re interested in coming along, hearing about the latest developments and joining in the discussion, then you can get tickets here (but hurry, they are going fast).

We look forward to seeing some of you there!

Oxford Meetup, August 20th

There have been several new starters at the Zooniverse in the past few months. Myself and Stuart were remarking the other day that we have still not met the Zooites in person. Although we have come to know several of you via email, we thought it was time to rectify the situation.

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We have organised a Zooniverse meetup, two weeks today, on Friday August 20th. We’re meeting at 5pm at a pub in Oxford called ‘Far From the Madding Crowd‘. There is already a forum thread on the topic, started by Alice.

We’d like to invite everyone to come along and join us! Most of the Oxford team will be there as well as members of the Chicago team, who are visiting Zooniverse HQ that week. We’ll give a short talk about the state of the Zooniverse and after that we’ll generally just be mingling, chatting and getting to know you all.

We hope that many of you can make it. The location is near to both the train and bus stations, as well as to several B&Bs. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them here in the comments or on the forum thread.

We hope to see you in a couple of weeks.

Will You Be Our Friend?

Join us on Facebook?
Join us on Facebook?

The Zooniverse loves all the wonderful things you do when you’re on our website, but we know that sometimes (but just sometimes) you stray and visit other URLs. We’re hoping that maybe, when you’re not hanging out with us here in the Zoo, you can take us with you to some of the places where you go to socialize. We’re all about the science, but after hours we know how to hang out and have a good time too.

As you can see right here on the blog, we have twitter feeds. They’ve been around a while, and a bunch of you are already following us. For those of you who may not have kept up with all the feeds, here are all our feeds: @The_Zooniverse, @GalaxyZoo, @GalaxyZooMerger, @Supernovae_Zoo, @SolarStormWatch, @MoonZoo, and @HannysVoorwerp (for the upcoming webcomic).

What’s new is our brave new foray into the land of Facebook. We invite you to make friends with “Explore Facebook”.

Be our friend?
Be our friend?

Along with this “Person,” we’ve also created a whole series of fan pages. You can now be a fan of: Galaxy Zoo: Hubble Edition, Galaxy Zoo: Mergers, Supernovae Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Webcomic: Hanny’s Voorwerp. Each fan page will let you keep up with the twitter feeds, blog posts, and we’ll even periodically be announcing special, in Facebook, opportunities.

We also have a favor: Several of you have created your own Galaxy Zoo fan pages and groups in Facebook. We’re trying to get everything tied together. If you own one of these pages, could you please message us through Facebook? We just want to make sure all the fan page owners know about some cool new things that are coming, so we can get the word out together.

Kitt Peak Observing Run: Night 1

Greetings from the sunny town of Tucson, Arizona! I’m here this week doing some observing. We are hunting Voorwerp! I left the UK on Saturday lunchtime and, in a strange convergence of fate (or more accurately time zones), arrived in the US at approximately the same time! Following a delayed flight from Denver to Tucson, and a journey of around 23 hours, I am finally here.

I am extremely excited about this trip for two reasons. First it’s going to be great to get more information on the potential new voorwerp candidates but also because – and I am going to let you in to my dirty little secret here – I am not a real astronomer!

As I hear the calls of “charlatan”, “fake” and other unkind names, I beg you to hear me out. As a PhD student I, like many astronomers, studied theory. This involved no end of sitting infront of computers, chewing pens and generally contemplating the Universe. In particular I made Universes, fake ones on the computer which we could use to compair to the real Universe, and thats where the trouble began. Like many theorists I came to be quite fond of my models, they where much cleaner and prettier than the real Universe. I became much more concerned with tweaking these models than paying attention to the real Universe. To compound the problem, most of the data that we need had either already been taken, in large automated surveys like the SDSS and the 2dFGRS, or woudn’t be gathered until new surveys came online. So, dear reader, it came to be that I obtained a PhD in astronomy without ever once visiting a telescope. Oh I looked through telescopes: small ones we used on public observing evenings. I would stand beside them and boldly talk with authority about what people saw there as I waited for the dreaded question. I could always feel it coming: “so what’s the biggest telescope you have ever used?”. I would hang my head in shame and have to tell them that they where looking at it.

Kit peak sign

So this is my baptism, my rite of passage to become a “real” astronomer. I have gone in to the Arizona desert with a pack of garcinia cambogia extract and I shall not return until I have my trophy, my symbol of astronomical manhood if you will: a data file full of galaxy spectra. If I dont return with this token, I accept that I shall be exiled from the astronomical community and no one will talk to me at parties anymore.

In stark contrast to my tardy admission to the “real” astronomer club, are the 4 summer students I am here with. These guys are from all across the US here even before they start a PhD they are losing their observing virginity. They certainly seem a lot less phased by the bank of computers, controls and systems which line the walls of the control room we are sitting in as I type this. They are observing everything from asteroids to AGN tonight and are taking to it like ducks to water.

Kitt Peak is where we are observing from, not so much a hill as a small town of telescopes. The hillside is dotted with domes from the imposing Mayall 4-m Telescope which sits high on the hill dominating and dwarfing the rest, to the more modest smaller domes used for public observing. Its easy to see why there are so many telescopes here, just popping my head out the door reveals a stunning sky full of stars (all at a slightly odd angle to my UK eyes), crowned by the magical Milky Way. On the horizon can be seen the lights of Tucson itself, a sight impressive for the lack of things to see. An equivalent sized city anywhere else in the world would make the sky glow a sickly orange. Tuscon by comparison is pretty dim, a lot of places could learn a thing or two about light pollution from here.

As I sign off, one of the students here is just starting some exposures of a globular cluster. We just got the first few pics and they look great. Tonight I am simply a tourist, gate crashing someone else’s party, but tomorrow night myself and Bill Keel will be heading to the 2.1 meter telescope to start our work. Then the pressure will be on, then I get to prove myself… I only hope I am as confident as the students seem to be! First however: sleep.

Tune in next time to find out if Stuart survives the jet lag and heat and we begin our search for new voorwerps.