Place: Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Town Center
Speaker: Lucy Fortson, Associate Professor UMN Physics
Abstract: Imagine that you are an astronomer and you have a goldmine of data - one million galaxies digitally imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the first-ever digital survey of the heavens. In amongst these galaxies are beautiful grand design spirals with blue knots of star formation regions beaded into the graceful spiral arms. There are also giant elliptical galaxies that are mostly red as their star formation died out ages ago leaving the glowing embers of a population of older stars. As an astronomer, you know that there are still many unanswered questions about why this dichotomy between blue spirals and red ellipticals exists and how galaxies evolved to be this way from the Big Bang. One question you might ask yourself is whether, hidden amongst these million galaxies, are images of blue ellipticals or red spirals. That is, are there elliptical galaxies that still have enough star formation occurring within their vast reaches to appear significantly blue to our digital instruments; or are there spiral galaxies where for some unknown reason, all the stars are from an older generation of stars and thus appear red? Now, what if you were told that no computer code could be written to find these blue ellipticals or red spirals because the shapes were too complex for a computer to decipher? That the only way to solve this problem was to look at each of the million galaxies by eye and classify them one-by-one? This is the problem that was presented to a graduate student at Oxford University in 2006 and his solution to the problem resulted in the birth of the now-famous Galaxy Zoo project. Galaxy Zoo asked the general public to volunteer their time and their visual cortex to look at the images of these million galaxies through an online interface. No astronomy training was required or wanted - just the pattern matching skills at which humans are so good and computers so terrible. Galaxy Zoo was a tremendous success with more than 100,000 volunteers providing over 60 million classifications leading to over 20 papers published in scientific journals. Based on this success, the Galaxy Zoo team developed several more projects where this `citizen science' method of data processing could be applied. And thus the `Zooniverse' was born. In this presentation, Dr. Fortson will overview the Galaxy Zoo project, describing the method of citizen science data processing and how this method eventually marries humans with computers to gain the most knowledge out of the huge flood of digital data that continues to pour in across all disciplines. Along the way, she will talk about some of the discoveries made by the general public and demonstrate several of the current projects available to the more than 400,000 volunteers in the Zooniverse.