Ten years ago, a strange blue smear flashed across the computer screen of Hanny von Arkel, a Dutch elementary school teacher. That anomalous blue smudge was located on a powerful telescope tracking movement. Thanks to the efforts of von Arkel, she’ll forever be immortalized in the nighttime sky, lending her moniker to the whimsically-named “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (Hanny’s Object). Not just a blue shape in the sky, this object represents an extremely rare astronomical phenomenon located almost 100,000 light-years away: a “quasar ionization echo.” The size of a small galaxy, this object is believed to be the remnants of a small galaxy after a run-in with a quasar: a mass of ionization and radiation. This never-before-seen event raises new questions about just what it takes to make – or break – a galaxy. And it’s just one of the myriad of discoveries pioneered by one of the largest crowdsourced initiatives in astronomical history.
It goes without saying at this point that computers are powerful. We’ve come a long way from the days of clunky machines like UNIVAC; modern computers can perform dizzyingly complex calculations and expertly pilot complicated machinery like an old hand. But for all their raw intellectual strength and power, computers still aren’t always cut out for the job. Though they can handle dizzingly complex calculations and spend weeks in pursuit of the highest prime number, computers are also astoundingly terrible at lateral thinking. There’s not a computer built yet that’s capable of cutting the metaphorical Gordian knot –replicating the strange leaps of logic and deductions that our organic brains are so good at coming up with.
With astronomy, the need for more lateral meat-based thinkers became clear as computerized telescopes started muscling in on astronomy. Computers were great at operating telescopes, but weren’t as good at classifying the things that they saw, which often wound up looking like indeterminate blobs. That’s where the Galaxy Zoo came in – an entirely volunteer operative based around classifying and identifying different galaxies detected by deep space telescopes.
Over the years, volunteers tracked and idenifited more than 125 million different galaxies, many of which went on to feature in various peer-reviewed articles. More than that, the Galaxy Zoo has contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe beyond our galaxy. Volunteers have discovered and charted entirely new kinds of galactic formations, even giving them whimsical monikers like “green peas.” The project quickly grew and took on a life of its own: having sprawled out of the old server bank at Jon Hopkins University, it now runs off a new virtual server.
After ten years of intensive volunteering, the Galaxy Zoo is a sprawling menagerie, a who’s-who of space phenomenon. Keep watching the skies!