We need your brainsPosted: March 18, 2010
Hey everyone… I know what your thinking, who is this Stuart person, I dont remember him. Well you would be forgiven for thinking that as I have not posted here for quite a long time.
Over the past 6-7 months I have been very busy finishing up my phd, applying for jobs, accepting a job, getting worried and weepy about leaving my beloved beautiful Edinburgh and finally shipping off to Oxford where I am now. Thankfully the job I have started at Oxford and the city itsself are much more engaging than I could have hoped for and as a plus, the pubs in Oxford are almost as good as those in Edinburgh.
So what am I doing? Well I have been very fortunate to have been hired to work on a project that I have been interested in for a long time now : Galaxy Zoo and the Zooniverse. These are citizen science projects which aim to get people involved in real science!
When you think about it, its strange, almost every intrest you have allows you to do something practical involving it. If you like food you can get involved in cooking for friends, if you like watching F1 you might not be able to make yourself a formula one car but you can take an interest in restoring your own car etc etc. Astronomy is a little different, as a result of the increased size and cost of the kinds of telescopes which probe the cutting edge of our understanding, most people who are not professional astronomers have become consumers of the science. Dont get me wrong there is a large community of amateur astronomers who can and do contribute in the hunt for supernove and binary stars, but the time, dedication and money required is more than I would personally be willing to devote!
The creation of these telescopes however has presented professional astronomers with a large problem. We are faced with a deluge of information from automated telescopes which scan huge tracks of, if not the entire sky, taking images of hundreds of thousands if not millions of objects. The problem will only get worse with telescopes like Pan-STARRS and the nightmarish LSST coming online in the next few years.
For some questions we want to ask of this torrent of data, computers give us the answer. Dutifully trudging through repetitive tasks like measuring the brightness or position of objects, is a task which our silicone chums are perfectly suited to. However some tasks such as the precise shape of a galaxy, or how unusual a galaxy is, is a much harder question for a computer to answer. Humans however are ideal at this kind of task. I will show you what I mean, which one of these is a spiral galaxy and which is an elliptical
its pretty obvious right, even without training, without knowing what a spiral or elliptical galaxy actually is, you can instantly pick one our from the other. Isnt your brain awesome !
So how do we utilize the millions of brains out there, idling away thinking about puppies or candy-floss or penguins or candy-floss penguins or what it would be like if we could make a pengin puppy hybrid (which would be called a pupegin obviously) and if that would be the cutest sight in the world… the intrinsic cuteness of a puppy with the mass huddling instinct of penguins, to make a massive quivering stack of furry awwwwwww….. see in the few seconds it took you to read that (and the subsequent minute worrying about the mental health of the author) your brain could have been put to a higher good classifying galaxies. What we need is some system where by humans can donate their free thought cycles to doing the tasks that computers struggle with.
The internet is great at this kind of thing, people already donate their free brain cycles to kittens with bad grammer, annoying facebook games and arguing about what is better: puppies or penguins (penguins obviously). So why not some real science? The galaxy zoo and related projects seek to do just that, if you are board or are just trying to avoid work, you can sign on and help find supernove, classify galaxies, detect solar storms and help us figure out how galaxies smash together .
This is really really useful data which is thoroughly welcomed by real scientists who use it to make real discoveries. I am aware this post is getting pretty long so let me leave it just now and talk about some of the really great science the team have done with the project so far and what the future will bring in two follow up posts. Until then stop “browsing” the interent and start doing our work for us !