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Site reviews: Galaxy Zoo 2

02/03/2009. Contributed by Rod MacDonald

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Volunteers required for Galactic mission! What is 'The Galaxy Zoo'? The website above will give you all the information you need but basically it involves using volunteers over the Internet to help classify galaxies to give a better understanding of the universe and its evolution.

Check out website: www.galaxyzoo.org

Volunteers required for Galactic mission!

What is 'The Galaxy Zoo'? The website above will give you all the information you need but basically it involves using volunteers over the Internet to help classify galaxies to give a better understanding of the universe and its evolution.



Telescopes and imaging techniques are now so good that the amount of information gathered is so vast, making it impossible for professional astronomers to assimilate it all. There are billions of galaxies out there but even the quarter of a million on the Galaxy Zoo files requires lots of people to check and double check the results.

You would think that computer programs could solve this but they are just not as good as humans at recognising shapes and making sense of things. They're also, despite megabytes and gigabytes, substantially slower than the human.

In the first Galaxy Zoo, 150,000 volunteers sifted through a huge pile of digital images to categorise them according to Galaxy type...elliptical, spiral, colour and so on. The success of the project astounded organisers! Now they have embarked on Galaxy Zoo 2 (February 16, 2009) which will build upon the success of the first project and carry it further to assess more information.

I attended a lecture by Dr. Chris Lintott at Edinburgh's Royal Observatory recently. British viewers of SFCrowsnest will recognise him from the long-running BBC programme, 'The Sky At Night', which he presents with Sir Patrick Moore. He talked with great enthusiasm about the Galaxy Zoo Project of which he is a leading figure, explaining how it evolved a couple of years ago when the amount of data became too much for professional astronomers to handle.

Basically it works like this. You log on to the website above and after a short tutorial, you are ready to look through images of galaxies to categorise them according to type. Images come in one at a time to be allocated according to its characteristics. Lots of these images have never been viewed by humans before. Sometimes odd shapes or unusual galaxies appear in the pictures and these can be referred for further study. Surprisingly, you could even be responsible for discovering a new type of galaxy!

The task is only just starting. When the space telescope Hubble was positioned to take a long exposure of an area of what was thought to be empty space, thousands upon thousands of galaxies appeared. The scale of the universe is astounding beyond belief. The idea is that spiral galaxies in groups eventually coalesce to form large elliptical galaxies. This is contrary to the idea that was held 50 years ago but nobody is 100% certain about the process. That's why it's important to categorise the galaxies.

The other point is, the further you look into space, the further back into time you look. Some of the galaxies you will be looking at on Galaxy Zoo are 1 billion or so light years away, hence we are seeing them as they were all these years ago. By studying galaxies from different time intervals in the life of the universe, we can get an idea of how it evolved.

To be involved in Galaxy Zoo you are not required to sit in front of a computer for hours and hours. It's possible to log in, do a little work and then go back to it later. It's fun and it is interesting. This, however, is only the start. Future programmes will involve other aspects of astronomy, including features on the planet Mars, stars, comets and asteroids. The Internet has enabled the amateur to be involved in astronomy once again!

It's only a rumour that Uncle Geoff had a tear in his eye when looking at one of the distant galaxies. It's only a rumour that he was heard to mutter, 'Home sweet home.'

Rod MacDonald

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