Sunday 5 July 2009

PulseProject, Peas, and The Pub where it All Began

Some weeks ago I had an interesting new assignment handed over to me: to find some people to be interviewed for a documentary about Galaxy Zoo. The makers of the documentary are Pulse-Project, who create podcasts and videos of scientific interviews and lectures. I started exchanging e-mails with Colin Murphy, and learnt how much he wants to make lots of good science freely available to the public, and of his determination to keep Pulse-Project going after the idea initially lost funding.

Colin first met Chris a few years ago. "My imagination was fired up," he told me and others a few weeks ago. (I accused Chris of having that effect. Chris declined to reply.) When Pulse-Project did manage to secure some support and interest again, Galaxy Zoo looked like a good way to get that excitement that comes with astronomy across.

Chris had talked Colin through a few of the specific projects on which the Zoo is currently working, especially the Peas and the Irregulars; other suggestions for the documentary to focus on were the Voorwerp, the gravitational lenses, and the asteroids. I sent Colin some notes about each of these: how these came about, how many people were involved, etc. I didn't initially understand why we had to focus on just one thing. Couldn't we do two or more? That would be more representative of the zoo.

Soon afterwards, I got a phone call from Colin. My unexpected piece of work experience was getting very exciting indeed. Listening to him, I felt myself understanding more and more every minute. So many little things I hadn't thought about - for example, if we focussed on both the irregulars and the asteroids, we'd have to go through two different lengthy processes of investigating each and going to interview separate people and so on. The Voorwerp was out: that would involve going to the Netherlands. In any case, I think Colin had made up his mind well before talking to me to focus on the peas.

I have never actually blogged specifically about the peas here, so I'll provide a quick explanation. They're a new class of galaxy discovered at the zoo. Not in one "eureka" moment, but after several months of collecting, never quite sure what we were looking for - and then another year of analysis by the scientists. They are small, round objects of a rich emerald-green, most but not all of which appear to be quasars, and all of which have a high OIII peak in the spectrum, meaning that two electrons have been knocked off the oxygen atoms.

A "pea" from SDSS:

A typical "Pea" spectrum. Note the very narrow, high peaks under specific ions such as OIII. The y axis (up and down) means light intensity, so these ions are emitting high quantities of light in a few particular wavelengths. I explain more about how this works here.

As soon as we thought we'd nailed the reason for their colour - the OIII - another two bunches of objects turned up with similar spectra: nearby starforming galaxies and further-away dark red quasars. In fact, next thing we knew, it seemed that nearly every "energetic" galaxy with any free gas in it had a pea-type spectrum.

When Kevin and Carie Cardamone, a PhD student at Yale, started work on the peas in July last year, the results continued to confound! Peas seem to be neither typical starburst galaxies nor typical active galactic nuclei. What we have found is that they are compact but of low density - so, I presume, of small total mass, yet forming stars at a rate 40 times higher than our own Milky Way Galaxy. But they're part many animals' diet at the zoo nowadays: from Rick's talk at Bristol (on the Markarian peas, a subset) to two recent blog posts by Carie on the paper's submission and process of writing, and more on the peas by Stephen. I'm also preparing the zooite history of the peas, and will post a link to the Galaxy Zoo Blog when that's done.

This may all sound a little nitty-gritty, but actually it's a bomb of a story to tell the public! What started off as amateurs playing around led to amateurs getting very interested, nitpicky, and hardworking - asking questions, arguing over definitions, learning SQL searches - until the scientists came along and found out even more. It's also an example of what Nicola Bennert expects will be "Galaxy Zoo's lasting legacy" - the ability of many public eyes to spot strangeness among quantities of data too vast for scientists to check alone. It's cutting-edge science - yet it's something any member of the public can join in.

We have three main "pea experts" on the forum: Rick, Laihro, and Starry Nite. Straight away we ran into the same problem as with the Voorwerp: neither Laihro nor Starry Nite live in the UK. Rick, however, lives in Bristol. "Yes," said Colin, "we could get to Bristol." Waveney was a must for this one, too, as he'd written peas-sorting classification pages to select the ones Carie wanted. Yes, Colin said, he could probably get to Poole too. I walked up and down the flagstones just outside our front door, hoping Rick and Waveney would be happy to be interviewed. It was a beautiful day and my lunatic fluffy cat was alternately rubbing and attacking my feet. I kept preparing to have to excuse myself in order to shut her indoors. But it was such a fascinating chat. "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about Galaxy Zoo?" Colin asked me.

"Yes," I said. "We've got such an incredible community." And I told him about how much work we do together on the forum and our meet-ups. I wasn't sure if that could be included, but to me it's one of the jewels in our crown. Colin sounded more interested than I'd been expecting. "Some of them have Skype chats," I said. "In fact, I guess you could record a Skype conference to get the people abroad." That wasn't one of my better ideas - the camera people certainly ruled it out - but I also suggested (and we might just still go ahead with this; I don't know yet) that people with Skype point their cameras at themselves from the side or back while they classify. "We could show a montage of people classifying all over the world!" said Colin.

I told him about our get-togethers - and suddenly an idea hit me. "You could come on a get-together and interview us there!"

I heard a tiny little pause - the sort which meant that this was an idea which could work. Even better, if we could have one where zookeepers came along as well, and talked to him and the volunteers . . . If we could have one in Oxford . . . Perhaps he could find us some computers where we could do some classifying . . . I'll talk to Chris, I said, and get back to you. One other thing, Colin said, could we have some JPEGs of galaxies? You bet we could - I'd already done a little of that for "The Sky at Night" for the Galaxy Zoo episode in September! SDSS images have some copyright (we can use them for anything, but have to get permission if it's commercial), but sorting that out would be - and was - a friendly and straightforward process. We hung up and I felt very excited indeed.

A few days and a flurry of e-mails between me, Colin, Chris and our pea heroes later, I invited the zooites to Oxford for 21st June. If you scroll down the first post you'll see the ideas as a list - we haven't done them all yet!

It was a wonderful day. Lots of zooites came to this one, including (as always with our big meet-ups) a few new people. I was especially delighted that Els travelled over from Belgium, Hanny from the Netherlands, and pea genius Laihro from Germany! I think all my organisational skills were given over to the documentary part, because I managed to book myself and two others into the wrong youth hostel and forget to pack my hairbrush - not what you want to do when you're about to be filmed.

During the morning, Colin and cameraman Brendon interviewed Chris while I spent two hours at Oxford Railway Station waiting for arrivals. This was great: invariably surrounded by two or more fellow zooites, and waving a makeshift "Galaxy Zoo" sign around which earned us a fair few funny looks and one question about what we were advertising! It was most interesting to see people introduced for the first time, such as Rick and Laihro; although our forum personalities generally start showing through after a few minutes of conversation, zooites' faces are rarely what many of us picture. Rick had dressed very smartly and Laihro was about 40 years younger than I think most of us had imagined. Hanny and Edd had just got back from Ireland and were dragging a week's luggage around. Waveney turned up in a dark blue shirt with a brilliantly coloured fish pattern and some fancy new business cards he couldn't resist showing us. "Thanks," I said. "I'll know who to ask next time I want to build an aeroplane."

Colin came along to introduce himself and we had a lovely lunch at the Big Bang restaurant . . .

. . . after which we went to Oxford Astrophysics and were herded into a lecture theartre - where we met Pamela and Georgia, who had arrived in the UK at 6am! In this picture, our programming genius Arfon is standing in front of the blackboard in a white shirt. "You look better than my undergraduates - a lot more intelligent," said Chris as we found our seats. But when we wouldn't stop yacking, he had to yell, "Quiet. Shut up, you lot. You are as bad as my undergraduates!"

It wasn't a lecture, however, even though they did claim to have hidden the biscuits: it was a sneak preview of two future Zoo projects! The first is about merger simulations. Arfon would put an SDSS image of a merging galaxy up on the screen, and we'd use a program to find a diagram that resembled it most, and then run the simulation to see what happened to it. After that we bombarded Chris and Arfon with suggestions (mine was to tell the program to stop trying too hard to imitate the target image - human eyes are far better at that than computers!). I must confess I spent most of my time getting frustrated with my inability to operate the program, but cleverer people loved it! What was more my line came next: Hubble Space Telescope zoo, and how fuzzy could the galaxies be before they become impossible to classify? Actually, I got interested enough to write an Object of the Day about that one, to get more data for Chris. The main answer was: "It depends what sort of classifications you want." Fair point. I'll be doing another one when Chris's laptop is returned to him (no, I don't know what's happened to it now, but it seems to do this to him). In the following picture, you'll see the frowns of concentration and Geoff and Jules's fabulous Zoo T-shirts:

After all this intellectual business, we went along to the Royal Oak, where Galaxy Zoo was invented. It's a wonderful labyrinth of rooms and stone floors and tables and funny-shaped bits of wood, seeming like a quiet country cottage on the edge of the wide noisy Woodstock Road. The picnic tables perch close together on the flagstones of the beer garden. It was here that Chris and Kevin kindly took me for dinner after a day of beta-testing Zoo 2 last June - and here where Kevin was "whinging" (in Pamela's words) about having 850,000 more galaxies to classify, whereupon he and Chris thought of showing them to the public. Colin had booked us in, and they'd roped us off a room and given us permission to film there. Apparently they hadn't heard of Galaxy Zoo! "This place is always full of astronomers," Chris told us. We Zooites reckoned it ought to have a Galaxy Zoo plaque. Perhaps in our elderly years it will be a place of pilgrimage . . .

The Royal Oak

After we'd settled down and had a few drinks and got started on the serious chattering, Colin and Brendon set up their camera in a table in a corner of the beer garden. There's a sweet little arch leading directly to the pavement; just when it was my turn to be interviewed some very noisy people trotted through it to screech cheerily at the people on our next table, so I hung around on camera for some five minutes without saying a word, waiting for them to be finished! We will all be appearing on camera with a tall hedge behind us, not looking at the camera, but looking at Colin, who asked the questions.

At the edge of the beer garden:

Colin reminded me patiently to please work the question into my answer, because the questions wouldn't appear in the documentary. I kept forgetting to do this. I tried to be expressive, as I'd caught onto when I lived in Spain in 2003-04, and wave my hands around, but I fear I overdid it rather - especially when trying to explain spectra! My mouth was very dry after the interview and I made straight for the bar, but it still took some time to get there because everybody was so friendly and wanted to talk to me. I guess you get used to interviews, as you do to lectures and teaching. Their first question was "What has been your main role in Galaxy Zoo?" I replied that I am the benevolent dictator. The last question was the hardest: Why classify? Why should people bother? I honestly couldn't answer that! I suggested to Chris afterwards that I should have said, "Why breathe?"

The next thing to sort out is the JPEGs and also to see if we're still doing the Skype montage! The documentary won't be out for a while. It was wonderful when Colin and Brendon remarked that without the get-together, the number of interviews they'd recorded today would have taken them 6 months and cost thousands of pounds. I knew, and probably still know, only a small amount about the process of making a documentary - but finding out what I have, and especially being the point of contact and arrangements, has been and is a wonderful experience. You don't need lots of training or bits of paper. You need a bit of imagination and to know who to go to with what; you need to be prepared to send and receive lots of e-mails, and - well, just to know a lot about the people you're working with. Addiction to the forum is a very good thing.

Thanks to everybody who came along - as ever, it was you folks who made it such a special day. Thanks for all your photos, several of which I have stolen, and for all your enthusiasm and great messages on the thread. The icing on the cake was when Chris handed out lots of the first pea paper to everyone who appeared on the acknowledgements. People without astronomy qualifications, without PhDs, some of whom knew little astronomy before starting Galaxy Zoo, were finding their names on a scientific paper. And we've discovered a new class of galaxy, and there's still a lot more to find out about them. We really have given peas a chance!

1 comment:

Half65 said...

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