Do you Zoo? Well, now you can Zoo 2. Galaxy Zoo, that is. Galaxy Zoo 2 is a new version of the highly successful project that enables members of the public to take part in astronomy research online. But the research is now getting more interesting, and shall we say, more provocative? The original site only asked members of the public to say whether a galaxy was spiral or elliptical, and which way it was rotating, Galaxy Zoo 2 asks users to delve deeper into 250,000 of the brightest and best galaxies to search for the strange and unusual. “We we were so surprised about how many people participated in Galaxy Zoo and how good they were at this,” said Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, one of the founders of Galaxy Zoo. “But now the idea is to ask for more detailed classifications. So it’s a Faustian pact we’re making with our users. We want them to spend more time with each galaxy, so it’s not just this fly by night, quick one-night stand of galaxy classification. We want them to get to know each galaxy a little bit better, have dinner first and all of that. But as a compromise, we have only a quarter of a million of the most interesting galaxies, the brightest, and the nearest. So you’ll spend more time looking at galaxies, but they’re prettier.”
At latest count, Galaxy Zoo has 182,383 users, (which Lintott notes is more people than live in Guam or Sunderland) who have performed 74,503,984 classifications of galaxies.
Lintott told Universe Today that Galaxy Zoo is a classic pub idea that worked. “I was working with Kevin Schawinski of Yale University on galaxies,” he said, and to get accurate data, they needed to classify a large number of galaxies. “We’d heard about Stardust at Home, which is an amazing project. I was impressed they were able to do this, to get people search for dust grains. And we’ve got all these pretty pictures of galaxies to look at, so surely people would like to look at galaxies. We put the site together, and we’ve been overwhelmed with the response.”
The human eye and brain are better at doing pattern recognition tasks than a computer. Lintott noted that astronomers have spent 70 years classifying galaxies according the laws that Hubble put down, but only by classifying a really large number are astronomers going to have any sense of what the population of different types of galaxies are.
“Is there really any difference between and Sa and an Sb galaxy?” asked Lintott. “They’re defined by different tightnesses of spiral arms and different bulge shapes, but we want to know, do they live in the same place or do they have the same star formation histories or what is going on with the black holes? So we need to classify many galaxies into these categories. So that’s the idea for Zoo 2. Rather than getting people to remember the categories we have a series of questions that you go through so we get individual information about the galaxies.”
As with the original site people are free to look at and describe as many galaxies as they like – even five minutes’ work will provide a valuable contribution. Galaxy Zoo 2 is intended to be even more fun as galaxies are pitted against each other in “Galaxy Wars” (which one is more spirally?) and users can compete against their friends to describe more objects as well as record their best finds.
Zoo 2 has been in a test phase for a couple of months, and everything seems to be working well, as hundreds of thousands of classifications have already been done in the new version. “There was a worry that maybe we had exhausted people’s tolerance for galaxies, but apparently not,” said Lintott.
To join in on the fun, check out Galaxy Zoo.
The BBC talked with Chris Lintott, too, and they have a nice video overview of Galaxy Zoo and Zoo 2.
Source: Interview with Chris Lintott.