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Galaxy Zoo Results Show that the Universe Isn’t ‘Lopsided’

Article written: 28 Mar , 2008
Updated: 26 Dec , 2015
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In July of last year, the doors of the online galaxy classification site Galaxy Zoo opened for business. The response? Tens of thousands of people logged-in to begin classifying galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. If you’ve been one of the users madly clicking away at galaxies on the Zoo, this is what you’ve been waiting for: the first results have been submitted for publication, and it turns out that our Universe is, in fact, not ‘lopsided’.

One of the questions the Galaxy Zoo site is trying to answer seems simple: are most of the spiral galaxies in our Universe spinning clockwise or counterclockwise? The Universe is observed to be isotropic on large scales, meaning that any direction you look, it appears the same. If this is true, the ways that galaxies spin should be the same, and we should see just as many clockwise galaxies as counterclockwise ones, in every direction.

To definitively answer whether this is true means that a large number of the galaxies in our Universe needed to be analyzed. Computers, as much as they can do for us, just aren’t so good at recognizing patterns. They have a hard time distinguishing with high accuracy whether a galaxy is spinning one way or the other. Thankfully, the human brain is masterful at recognizing patterns. We do so every day when when look at a friend’s face and know who they are. Galaxy Zoo recruited the brains of over 125,000 people to help comb through almost a million galaxies recorded by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a robotic telescope survey that is made available to scientists online.

When the first results started to come in, something seemed a bit odd: more counterclockwise galaxies were being reported than clockwise ones. Did this mean the Universe somehow formed more counterclockwise galaxies, or was it something funny with the way people were analyzing the data?

“You would need something pretty wacky to create the effect…Normally you talk to cosmologists and they have three responses to what’s going on. This one made their jaws drop,” said Chris Lintott, a member of the Galaxy Zoo team and a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford.

News pieces on the project reported that the Universe was ‘lopsided’, and suggestions for the cause of this phenomenon ranged from the existence of a universe-wide magnetic field to a rethinking of the topology, or shape, of the Universe.

“People were very very critical when we released the data before completely analyzing the results to look for biases, but one thing we do with Galaxy Zoo is that we try to keep the process by which we’re doing the science as open as possible,” Lintott said.

After checking for biases in how users were classifying the galaxies, though, the explanation for the abundance of counterclockwise galaxies was found to exist on a smaller scale: right inside the human brain.

To test whether it was the Universe or the participants that were ‘lopsided’, the Galaxy Zoo team changed the images that people could classify. They inserted a ‘bias sample’ into the catalogue of galaxies on the site: a monochrome image, one image mirrored vertically and one mirrored diagonally for each of over 91,000 objects that were already classified.

If it was the Universe that was lopsided, the numbers in this sample should have switched around. In other words, if there were really more anticlockwise than clockwise galaxies, then there should have been more clockwise galaxies clicked on in this sample, when the image was flipped around. But the preference for anticlockwise galaxies stayed the same in the sample.

Why would people prefer to click on the “anticlockwise” button more often than the “clockwise” button? Either this is something odd about the human brain, in which given a choice between the two prefers one over the other, or there is something about the interface that is making people click on the anticlockwise button more often (i.e., people ‘like’ clicking on buttons toward the center of the screen).

Galaxy Zoo is far from finished with providing the public with an opportunity to participate in an ongoing research project. The site will enter a new phase in the coming months to better study both nature of galaxies and the workings of the human brain.

The first paper using the Galaxy Zoo data was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. If you want to get involved in the very addictive and fun project, you can sign up at www.galaxyzoo.org.

Source: Arxiv, phone interview with Chris Lintott


10 Responses

  1. Ray Bingham says

    So the universe is NOT lopsided. That must mean one of a very few things. We are at the center of a sphere! Equal distant from all edges. (that sounds dumb doesn’t it). Or The universe is infinite in all directions.

  2. Curtis says

    I don’t think we can really discern any shape no matter what research we do. Until we can develop FTL propulsion technologies, we will merely have to be content with a Spherical VISIBLE universe. Once we reach a distance that is farther in terms of light years than we estimate the age of the universe to be, it becomes impossible to go beyond that. Or return from that for that matter. Throw in an accelerated expansion of the universe, it is quite possible there are things in the universe we will never reach. This does however make a more interesting study of the human mind, moreso than an astronomical study.

    It is humourous that with all the studies that have been done, all we have is proof that the Earth is at the center of the universe. So much for progress, huh?

  3. Laszlo says

    Most tools and instruments are designed for right-handed clucks(users). Similarly for roadways, ramps, staircases, door hinges, etc. You need to position your right foot ahead of the left to circle a track or public walks. The right is the power foot in sports and foot positioning to operate mundane appliances made for right handers.
    Why? Because of the written language, which scans left to right. Even the pixels on our viewer screens scan several times per second left-to-right, whether computer CRT, TV or satellite images.
    Even left-handers write right-handed because of this. The only way to beat this rap is to hook your left hand so that it goes right-to-left. Fine, except now your writing left-handed and reverse (to suit convention), since the ‘herd’ cannot scan right-to-left. Very few languages scan right-to-left, Hebrew scans both ways. So if a right-hander wrote right-to-left the pen would stick into the paper/papyrus. Ditto for a lefty writing left-handed and reverse(left-to-right), that pen will punch a hole in your paper, therefore lefties ‘hook their hand’.
    You might say this is a dichotomy b/w objectivity and subjectivity. Is your point of focus the person doing the writing, or in this case analysing by scanning, or the photo objective. Subjectively, writing or circling medial-to-lateral gives opposite directions for lefty vs righty. Empathy, not objectivity, provides the clue. Their results tell us which way our written language scans, even forcing lefties to hook & write in reverse.
    The world we are trying to discern is not one of sight or sound, but of mind! Les

  4. nano says

    they should try people of different cultures, or at least people that read differently

    ie – arabic (right-to-left),japanese (right->left, top->bottom), etc

  5. En julio del año pasado se abrieron las puertas de Galaxy Zoo, una página web de clasificación de galaxias. ¿La respuesta? Decenas de millares de personas se registraron y comenzaron a clasificar galaxias del Sloan Digital Sky Survey. […] Fuente: Nicholos Wethington para Universe Today.

  6. Isaías González says

    This may be a form of dyslexia. For example, some people confuse the letter “b” and the letter “d” or the letter “b” and the letter “p”, etc.

    I don’t know whether there are studies about the relation between dyslexia and concepts like “clockwise” or “counterclockwise” but the idea is the same.

    The United States have a 18% of its population with dyslexia.

    The dyslexic people have difficulties to learn but many of them have normal or superior intelligence.

    Isaías González
    [email protected]

  7. Helio Huet says

    My guess would be the close association of galaxies with hurricnes. They can look very similar, and since most participants live in the northern hemisphere, the counter-clockwise rotation of a hurricane might influence quite a number of people.

  8. Cliff says

    Is it not true that disk spiral galazies will seem ‘righthanded’ viewed from one side, and ‘lefthanded’ when viewed from the opposite side. Try it yourself with a spiral drawn on thin paper and look from either side to see the reverse.

    The apparent sidness is merely from our view point.

  9. Peter K says

    Cliff, excellent point! Ha, I’d not thought of that and I participated in the sky survey.
    I don’t think the human brain is hampered by hurricanes though, Helio.
    My guess is that when there is doubt, guessing clockwise seems too perfect, so they click on anti-clockwise just as a step to counter their own basic bias for clockwise turning.

  10. beelzebubjones says

    clockwise or counter-clockwise? this seems a bit weird to me. if i were looking down on a spiral galaxy and determined that it was spinning in a clockwise direction; however if someone were on the other side of that same galaxy…. wouldn’t they see it spinning in a counter-clockwise direction. i spun a bicycle wheel and sure enough, at least from my observations… from one side of the wheel it’s spinning clockwise but from the other counter-clockwise. it seems to me it’s just like einstein said, “it’s relative” but maybe that’s the point how many from our perspective are spinning one way or another; a universe not lopsided should have an equal amount of both but i’m still straining with this because the galaxies are spinning their direction depends upon the observers perspective. what am i missing?

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