Monday 24 August 2009

Galaxy Zoo goes to Greenwich

This is the first chance I've had to write about a lovely meet-up held in Greenwich on Sunday 16th August, the Sunday before last. As I put it in the Galaxy Zoo Get-Together index, fond reminiscences start here.

This was an important meet-up as we knew a lot of Zooites were coming. Chris leaked the news that there was going to be a special one back at the Peas in Oxford gathering. That's why I called it the Mystery Meet-Up: nobody knew quite what was happening, and the zookeepers were infuriatingly vague. They enjoy themselves that way!

Anyway, we began to get the idea that it would be a large gathering, and zooites began to book trains. One of the most exciting things was that our beloved Bill would be coming all the way from the States.

I began to prepare . . .

Yes - red, green and blue smarties are missing. There were surprisingly few of them for 2 packets of smarties. They made asteroid muffins. I went to London a few days in advance and stayed with some lovely people who enjoyed eating these muffins, so I made some more. The bewilderment my hosts must have felt when I asked them not to eat the asteroids . . .

(Asteroids appear as green, red and blue spots because the SDSS telescope has a green, a red and a blue filter. The asteroid moves in relation to the Earth while the camera looks at it through its different filters. All the images are a conglomerate of these colours, plus two more filters which don't show up visibly - but moving objects appear in separate places.)

Obviously, the Zoo first congregated in the Cafe.

I was delighted to meet some people I hadn't met before, such as Julianne (Capella on the forum); Peter from the brother and sister duo LizPeter, our nebulae specialists; a friend of Rick's; and Caro the artist.

There was a show at 13:45 which many people went to, "The Sky Tonight". I didn't as I've seen plenty of things like that before! As soon as that was over, we headed to a little courtyard at the bottom of some steps . . .

(I love the dapply sunlight and the reflections of Zooites in the windows! The shows run behind them . . .)

. . . where we met Bill! He was wearing his NGC3314 shirt.

I saw Fluffy talking to someone who looked familiar - and it was Carie from the Peas Project! It was great to meet her too; she explained some extremely cool stuff about peas and dust to me on the way down the hill later. We had a lovely tour by a very friendly guide who later came to the pub with us. Sadly there were so many of us that not everybody heard very much! This is very cool - a sundial of two dolphins.

As is the inside of one of the domes.

I had such a great day last year when I saw a couple of planetarium shows - one of the best bits was when they began the usual announcement: "If you've got a mobile phone . . ." then continued, ". . . don't worry about it - we are under 32 tonnes of bronze and the likelihood of your getting a signal is vanishingly small!"

During the tour several of us had to rush off to see the next show, "The Dawn of the Space Age". It had some good parts, but all in all I was very disappointed. The historical highlights were great, but the rest of it was . . . well, slowed-down and cartoonified. There was almost no live footage, even though I think a lot of the sound tracks were authentic. Showing the Russian astronauts orbiting the Earth, and then Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon as cartoon characters, seemed unnecessary as well as insulting. (I really must write a blog post on why I don't like the use of cartoons to tell stories.) Also they wasted an awful lot of time with clunking bits of machinery and emotional music, trying to stretch it out, when actually I was just sitting there getting bored. But it was nice to see the show even so. And it ended with a quote from an astronaut saying that it's historically accurate, which is one thing!

Incidentally, if you're wondering what planetarium shows to see, I recommend "Star Life" and the young children's one about the cardboard rocket! I do not recommend "Black Holes: Beyond Infinity", which is basically a bunch of overblown graphics and left the three children who came to see it with us bewildered as to what a black hole actually is. There is another I haven't seen about ice worlds, which some people seem to enjoy and others not. I'm quite curious about it.

Anyway, the really interesting bit came after that show was finished. We got herded into a lecture theatre - and then realised there were just too many of us.

So, thanks to the fantastic people working at the Observatory, we got another lecture theatre. Chris and Bill herded half of us into another room. The remaining half were left with Carie and Jordan. We all introduced ourselves. I explained that I was the dictator.

Jordan told us about his work looking into why people try out Galaxy Zoo. He interviewed some people at random, who came up with many reasons to classify galaxies: beauty, teaching, learning, community, possibility of being the first person in the world to see something . . . But the overwhelming reason people gave for choosing to participate was the chance to contribute to real scientific research.

This means various things - very good things. For a start, it means that Galaxy Zoo wasn't just lucky: it means that other citizen science projects are likely to attract people who want to contribute, as well. And to me, it also means that people have a deep respect for science, and that citizen science is the way both to teach people and to do science.

Jordan wrote up the "12 Reasons" why people participate here. I see a certain way to sort them: one is what gets people here, and the other what keeps them. For example, the beauty and the thought of being the first person to see some galaxies is the former; the community and learning is one of the latter. The chance to contribute to research, I feel, is both.

Carie told us more about the peas, and when we'd swapped rooms Chris and Bill told us more about zoo projects generally. The story of how Bill got to the forum is really wonderful - that's another thing I'll save for a separate post, perhaps if I ever find out his birthday! (Hint, hint!)

Outside in the sun again, headed for the pub, I made sure that the shirts got on record again. Jules and I were the only two to turn up in proper uniform.

Bill has been taking the Zoo Sign on tour quite a lot lately, and it was ceremoniously handed over to Capella who can take it to Italy and South Africa.

And then we had a great group photo!

The best astronomical ideas (such as Galaxy Zoo) start in pubs, so that was where we headed next. Chris has a habit of picking good pubs. Suddenly a lot more people seemed to arrive on the scene. I hadn't been there too long when I had one of the most pleasant surprises of my life: two very nice American ladies who Chris had brought along wanted to meet me to hear about how to moderate a forum! Chris introduced me as "the queen of the forum", which I'm not quite sure is true, but we stood and talked for a long time. I cheekily asked Chris if this meant there were more forums coming, and could I moderate them too? He pointed out that I can't moderate fifty forums. Hmmmm! Curiouser and curiouser!

How do you moderate a forum successfully? Well, I told them a lot of the basics, such as praise in public and reprimands in private, avoiding arguing, dealing with the behaviour rather than the subject under discussion if a nasty argument starts, and deciding when to address something publicly and when privately. I emphasised how important it is never to forget you are a moderator and therefore you just have to give up a little freedom in expressing your opinions (that's one reason I have this blog!); when interfering with someone's post, such as moving it to another thread, it's good policy to demonstrate to them that it's to their advantage rather than just interfering. I talked about a good book I read many years ago, "That's not what I meant!" by Deborah Tannen, about linguistics and how signals can be misinterpreted; I recommended that you find every opportunity to save people's pride, and be patient with them, and the next thing you know they'll be supporting a culture they initially found very strange . . . I said a lot more, I expect. But the most important thing about moderating a forum, I think, is harder to explain. I'll relate a totally unrelated story to try and express it.

"We Need to Talk about Kevin" by Lionel Shriver is a fascinating and painful novel set in the Clinton era when, evidently, high school shootings were frequent. The protagonist - Eva, the mother of a boy who kills several of his classmates - has a keen eye for extreme detail about other people, and runs little soliloquies about them. Her parents-in-law have quite a hobby of gadgets and time-saving. Her father-in-law especially is constantly building new items to save himself time - and gets a bit bewildered to find himself having more and more free time. What can he do with it?

That made me think of how society generally, and workplaces, and government targets and so on, are obsessed with using machines when people could do the job, so laying off workers; and, when this isn't possible, telling people to stick to methods to save time. This sounds like a negative view of what's generally a good thing. But there are times, particularly in human relationships, when this is a damaging thing to do. There aren't quick fixes with bringing up a child, or maintaining a happy partnership. Time and love, the things all these methods and machines try so hard to circumvent, are the only things which really work.

If you ask me, it's the same with the forum. No fancy methods or tricks I could perform would be a real substitute for spending a lot of time there. If I never made any mistakes on the forum, but I didn't care about it much, I wouldn't affect what happens there. It's like writing long instructions threads for people. That's often useful and saves time, but it's also impersonal. I find that people often understand much quicker simply because somebody else is taking the trouble to explain something to them. In fact, if someone is unhappy on the forum I can get very hurt even if I know rationally that they are being unreasonable. And I do make mistakes sometimes, but I find people are very forgiving of that.

There's a lot of human messiness, vulnerability, and time-wasting involved in my approach. But it works better than any fancy tricks.

Other people I met were some young programmers, who I couldn't resist privately dubbing "The Programmers in Black"! One is named Scott; he's wearing the grey cap. They have evidently been in on some messages I sent to the administrators about the problems the forum merger created, which I should have phrased more tactfully, and probably thought I was an unappreciative dragon! Well, it was lovely to talk to them anyway!

It was lovely how many zooites had come along to meet more of the people they talk to in the virtual world every day; and thrilling to meet so many people of whose existence I hadn't even known, coming to work at the zoo as it expands beyond my own sight. I think there are going to be a lot of surprises over the next few years.

The following week, there was a big week-long conference for all these people! Several zooites assumed I'd be there and have been asking me questions about it. I wasn't. I was supposed to go to a session, but then, at the last minute, plans changed and the work became less speculative and more confidential and plan-filled. To say I wasn't upset about this would hardly be true, especially when I missed Tom and Jules talking in the education conference; but I guess nobody can go to everything. I guess I'm not enough of a specialist to go anywhere in a conference. I'm not a scientist or teacher or programmer, I'm just . . . the one who takes care of things when they come. In any case, you can follow it on Twitter here, and read more on the forum and blog. (I missed all the livestreaming. I just wasn't feeling well and didn't turn it on! I hope someone will write it up for us all.) Highlights include a planned Moon Zoo, and some videoing and taking more spectra of selected galaxies!

There also seems to be a planned return to something I thought must have fallen by the wayside: studying crows in their natural habitat. Crows can use tools pretty spontaneously in the laboratory, and are very good at using human machines for their purposes. I saw a wonderful video a year or so ago about a crow that worked out for itself to bend a wire and make a loop to get food out of a jar, and wild ones dropping their nuts under car tyres to crush them. The question is: do they do this in the wild, without human influence? Getting lots of humans to watch them on camera will be much better than one or two people!

All in all, the future of the zoo - or the zoo idea, as it's going to many more places - is looking incredibly exciting. This isn't the first post I've ended with some artwork of Caro's, so here is another of her pieces of perfection:

P.S. I reminded myself at the beginning, but it had still dropped out of my head at the end, to say thank you to Jules and Mr Jules, Caro (and Mr Caro?), Paddy, Blackprojects, Geoff, and probably more of you for these wonderful pictures which I stole with impunity.

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