Galaxy Zoo and citizen science

Anyone can be a scientist

Important scientific research is taking place in California, where El Niño is bringing increased flooding and coastline erosion. Scientists want to analyse flood and erosion data to better understand the impact of climate change and to predict the future of California’s coastlines. The researchers need a lot of data, more than they themselves could collect, so The Nature Conservancy is calling on California’s tech-savvy citizens to help. Using smartphones and drones to collect geo-tagged images and fly-by videos, local citizens are able to contribute to the research. Professional scientists are analysing the data to make sense of it but the public is providing the data. You don’t have to be a professional to contribute to research and sometimes the science can’t happen without the public. This is citizen science.

When I talk to people about some of the most exciting science done by amateurs, I’m often surprised to learn that many people aren’t aware of citizen science. It’s nothing new. You may have received leaflets from conservation organisations looking for volunteers to help count animals such as bats or butterflies. Universities frequently work with school children on citizen science projects, which allows them to kill two birds with one stone by carrying out research and engaging with the public. From 2012-2013, the Society of Biology worked with school children and other citizens throughout the UK to understand when flying ants appear in the summer.

Astronomy is the probably the field most associated with citizen science. Many of us have our own telescopes and astronomical discoveries have been made by amateurs sitting in their back gardens. Amateur astronomers often discover new comets or novae and some are engaged in research projects looking at phenomena like asteroids and variable star systems. The American Association of Variable Star Observers has collected variable star data since 1911 and anyone can join in at the Citizen Sky website.

We’ll be here all day if I start writing about every citizen science project that interests me, so instead let’s focus on my favourite: Galaxy Zoo. It’s exciting, it leads to genuine scientific discoveries and academic publications, and you can take part right now just by looking at spectacular images of objects deep in space that nobody has ever seen before. The project started in 2007 when one million images of galaxies and other deep space objects were provided by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). All these images need to be classified and it was going to be a big ask for computers. Firstly, it’s a lot of data to go through. Secondly, computers aren’t very good at the type of work involved in classifying galaxies visually. People are good at this sort of thing but professional astronomers can’t go through millions of images. In 2007, Galaxy Zoo called on citizens to sign up and start classifying galaxies that have never been seen before by human eyes.

When the project started, nobody knew how well it would work. It could take many years for people to classifying the million images from the SDSS. At the end of the first day, the website was receiving 70,000 classifications every hour. It took no time to get through the first million images from the survey and by the end of the first year citizen scientists had classified over 50 million objects. 150,000 science enthusiasts sat at their computers and made real contributions to astronomy. The project has made several important discoveries because of these efforts, including entirely new types of galaxy never seen before. One of the most inspiring science talks I’ve ever attended was given by Alice Sheppard, a former forum moderator and ambassador for Galaxy Zoo. I recently interviewed her to ask about citizen science and what’s so special about peas.

The forum is an important part of the project and community. What did you do there?

“I ran the discussion forum as lead moderator, keeping the place organised and friendly. I also organised meet ups and coordinated journalists/scientists/volunteers talking to each other. I made sure everyone on the forum was welcome and knew where to post their finds, and make sure these finds were visible.”

The users, zooites, make some amazing discoveries and real contributions to science. I’ve heard about “peas” before, what the hell are they?

“Peas are galaxies that get their name because they appear green through the telescope’s filters. Also they’re small and round! They are intensely star forming and were discovered entirely by zooites. They are rare so any professional with time only to look at 500 galaxies or fewer would probably not have found any, or thought they were an artifact (not real, trick of the light etc). They are found in empty voids of space and seem to behave like very young galaxies that we look at much further away. We think the gas in these voids coalesced last. Peas are still really actively studied by lots of astronomers.”

It’s amazing that we wouldn’t have known about them if it weren’t for the zooites using the website. Citizen science is certainly cool but is it important? Why?

“Yes, for two reasons. Firstly, with technology such as telescopes and computers there is far more data to analyse than professionals have time for. But a lot of it is pretty simple to analyse, and most doesn’t need training – though some people love training. Secondly, science is part of the modern world and absolutely beautiful. It should be available for everyone: not just books and documentaries, but taking part. A population that a understands the scientific method, such as climate and medicine, is likely to do much better than one that doesn’t. Too much has been left to journalists and politicians if you ask me. I’m happier for understanding science much better than university taught me to, and I bet lots of other people would be too.”

I bet you can see why people were so inspired by Alice’s talk. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Science really is beautiful. It’s a human endeavour to understand the world we live in and you can get involved if you want to. Science can be for everyone and Galaxy Zoo is a perfect example of amateur enthusiasts coming together to make discoveries and unravel mysteries of the universe.

If you want to take part then head over to the website where you can quickly learn what to do and start contributing. You won’t get paid but you’ll come across stunning sights from the far reaches of the cosmos. You’ll probably be the first person to ever see them. Best browser game ever?