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Across a decade, 73,000 enthusiasts joined forces to classify galaxies in their spare time

  • 07 October 2021
  • 21 min listen

The mysteries of outer space have long fascinated scientists and academics, but an innovative research project has put ordinary people at the helm of exploring our cosmos.

To celebrate World Space Week, Professor Bob Nicol and Professor Daniel Thomas joined the Life Solved podcast to talk about Galaxy Zoo, a citizen-science project part-funded by the University of Portsmouth.

What is Galaxy Zoo?

Galaxy Zoo saw more than 73,000 space enthusiasts joining forces to help classify galaxies and contribute to our understanding of the universe. This decade-long research project was born out of a need to accurately and quickly process the vast amounts of imagery created by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Professor Bob Nicol had previously been working on the Sloan project and was proud when the reams of digital camera imaging it generated were archived and made publicly available. That presented an enormous mine of data but also a problem. Daniel explained:

If you say to somebody, look at 50000 images and classify them into just one type only type galaxy and another spiral galaxy, that seems crazy.

Professor Daniel Thomas, Professor of Astrophysics

And yet, that’s exactly what they were able to do – and more – by creating an online portal where members of the public could register and classify galaxies in their free time.

An overnight success

This joint project with colleagues at Oxford University was featured in a spot on national television news when it launched, only for the sheer number of interactions to crash the server! The public’s unprecedented enthusiasm to take part caused the team to quickly upscale operations, and before long, communities were forming over the exciting work to be done.

I think it really was a new a new era in citizen science. Of course, if you have ten thousand users with this rate of classifications you can use a lot of classification straightaway. It was absolutely amazing!

Professor Daniel Thomas, Professor of Astrophysics

Considering all this took place a decade ago before social media communities were a regular part of public life, the Galaxy Zoo phenomenon foretold a revolution for public engagement in science and research.

In fact, Galaxy Zoo quickly led to Zooniverse: now the world’s largest portal for people-powered research. Right now, 2.3 million people are taking part in work that informs breakthroughs and furthers research and ideas across the scientific world. And the subjects are as diverse as their community.

How a community informed artificial intelligence

Galaxy Zoo itself began with a simple tutorial that walked users through the process of classifying a galaxy into either a rugby ball-shaped structure, or a spiral arm structure, something that AI and computer tech of the time was not able to do as reliably as the human brain.

The human brain remains the most powerful computer we can ever dream of having

Professor Daniel Thomas, Professor of Astrophysics

Nevertheless, in addition to the classifications Galaxy Zoo generated, the process of identification has fed into the development of more sophisticated AI and machine learning to aid with such tasks in future.

So, what about the scientific outputs of the data classification? Well, it was then possible to combine the findings with data from the Hubble project to understand more about where different types of galaxies were located. Their proximities to one another also suggested that galaxies that have collided lose their spiral arm structures, giving insight and ideas into the formation and life-span of our cosmos.

What’s more, communities blossomed, and other strands of analysis spun off this original study, even in the fields of psychology!

More to explore

To Bob and Daniel, many questions remain to be explored, and thanks to the hard data and algorithms generated by the project, the sky’s the limit for the answers we might find.

I think we're in danger of thinking science as the answer to every question. Well, it doesn't. And I think the Zooniverse demonstrates across a whole variety of disciplines. There's still stuff to discover. And if you're curious, you can go and look at it, and you can go and find something.

Professor Bob Nichol, Professor of Astrophysics

How you can find out more about citizen science projects

You can find out more about Galaxy Zoo here on the Zooniverse portal.

To listen to Bob and Dan talking about their work, you can listen to the podcast on any app or desktop device, just search 'Life Solved'.

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