Sunday, 25 April 2010

She is an Astronomer Conference: My talk

This will be the first of three blogposts describing the She is an Astronomer Conference just held at the Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington Hall, London, on April 22nd and 23rd. We'd almost had to cancel it because of the volcanic ash, and several people couldn't make it - but it was a terrific experience all the same. I found it enjoyable and inspiring to meet so many professional women astronomers, and quite some of the things I found out were quite a challenge! I'll write a section on each of the days, and the lectures and conversations, after this post. This one I am writing on the train between Llanelli and home, with no power supply or Internet access; so I'll make this one about my lecture which was the last but one talk on Thursday.

I was rather nervous and hideously conscious that I was pressed for time and had stupidly left preparation until the last minute, so not everything I've written actually got said - sadly the glaring gaps seem to be all the most important or entertaining points. But there you go.

It was titled "Democracy in Astronomy" which at least one person speculated would be "Oh crumbs, a bit heavy." I hope it wasn't. This conference was basically about achieving more equality. I argued for more equality (or perhaps not equality, exactly, but certainly inclusion) on a wider level: not just between the sexes, but between the citizen scientist and the professional. I explained that my niche is running online astronomical communities, and bringing astronomy to the general public; and it has been incredibly moving not only to see the great science that has come out of all this, but to have seen many people transformed by what they've learned and achieved.

Astronomy has a history of major contributions by amateurs. To the best of my knowledge, none of the folks on this slide had any formal schooling (to be honest I am not sure about Tom Boles, and Caroline Herschel was clearly well taught by her brother - but you get the gist). I loved the story of Milton Humason driving equipment by mule up and down the mountain, volunteering to help out at an observing night, and ending up becoming a world class astronomer. Some contributions started out with glorious irrelevance, such as Fraunhoffer's discovery of the solar spectrum through his attempts to correct the "rainbow" problems with spectacle lenses. I couldn't resist the inclusion of Hedy Lamarr; not an astronomer I know, but we astronomers do love spectra, for which she found a use nobody else had thought of. She wanted to join the National Society of Inventors, but was told instead to use her celebrity status to collect money for the war effort. How patronising!

The general public tend to be very active today - especially now with the age of the Internet, and the ability to share information and work together as, I believe, never before. Here are two inspiring little stories I wanted to share. In autumn 2009, the Guardian wanted to report on a question asked by a politician in Parliament. The question was about whistleblowers and what was being done to protect them. But Carter-Ruck, the legal firm acting on behalf of the oil giant Trafigura, had obtained a superinjunction: not only could the Guardian not report the question, but they could not even report that they had been gagged. This was the first time this had ever happened in history: questions asked in Parliament are sacred ground, completely public property, and should never be hushed up. Fortunately, the Guardian could still do one thing: they could tweet something to this effect, and reveal Carter-Ruck's name. And as Parliament's website reveals questions politicians plan to ask, it was possible for the public to put two and two and find the question in, well, question. It promptly became public knowledge! As for the Simon Singh case: well, most people in the lecture theatre had heard of him, and you all know the story if you read this blog (or one of many others). Headlines often emphasise the fuss, the screaming mob, the campaigning. What doesn't always get so much attention - except in Ben Goldacre's quote - is the intense scrutiny, detail, and hard work that goes into these campaigns. The public don't just shout; they search, too, and do it extremely well.

Now, what has all that got to do with astronomy? In this case: databases. Here is one, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its vast expanses of web pages, data on each of the two million galaxies it surveys night after night. These pages show the spectrum of each galaxy, the redshift, the colour, and much more.

It has done about a quarter of the total sky now, about 2 million objects. These "scarf" shapes represent areas it's gone over. It's always doing more. And as it's a robot, most of these had not - until summer 2007 - been seen by human eyes. It is a consequence of the digital age, simply too much data for the few professional astronomers there are out there to cope with.

Now, one person actually using it was Kevin Schawinski. He was searching for a pretty rare type of galaxy: the blue elliptical. Ellipticals, as this audience knew very well, are traditionally not starforming; they have no free gas with which to do so. But Kevin had found a few, and wanted to find more - he couldn't make a judgement about what was going on with such a small sample. He therefore attempted to go through the Sloan's entire database, and got severe headaches. So he and Chris got the idea of showing the galaxies to the public . . .

. . . and created a website where galaxies from the Sloan were automatically fed into the Galaxy Zoo website, and people could click a button to choose the best shape. Computers are very good at telling you the colour, the spectrum and so on - but they are useless at telling you the shape; while human eyes are very good at it. You didn't need any particular knowledge of astronomy to choose the right shape. You just needed your eyes.

The success was beyond their wildest dreams. They thought it would be a nice little side project, with some results (on average 10 clicks per galaxy) to look forward to in 3 to 5 years' time. They achieved that target in three weeks. Even better, amateurs proved as good as professionals at doing it.

The Zookeepers had two main questions to answer: one was the blue ellipticals, and the other was whether there really was a bias or axis of some kind in the direction of spiral galaxies' rotation. (If there was, this was as sensible as saying that all sheep point left, regardless of where you are or which way you are facing - but this was what Michael Longo's survey seemed to be showing!) But suddenly an awful lot more questions were being answered. For example, ring galaxies and three-armed spirals had previously been thought extremely rare, but we found hundreds of each. We have a collection of comets, and also of asteroids - many of which may be new discoveries, and we're running a database to look them all up. Hanny over there, I remarked, would tell anyone who wanted to know about a certain object in the top left!

Oh, and of course we have terrific fun as amateurs too. This slide makes amateurs roar with laughter. I was crestfallen to say the least when this audience did not laugh at all. I gave them express permission to laugh, but the best comment I got was "You have a good imagination". Oh well!

More seriously: amateurs are full of questions, as well as unexpected answers. We started asking: has any work on such and such been done? If the answer was no, we developed the audacity to say: "Right, well let's do it ourselves then."

About a dozen different people asked, over the first few weeks, why some galaxies were small, round and green. Professionals might, under pressure to get on with what they're supposed to be doing, have only seen one or two and passed them off as anomalies. (I must admit I thought it was just the way the SDSS happened to show some galaxies, and didn't think to report it.) Pat, for example, asked if they were quasars, but it was in Hanny's humourous thread a large collection grew. Gradually the zooites learnt to interpret the spectra, and began to notice certain similarities. Starry Nite, for example, made these several observations, that were in fact right. They were not quasars - we could tell that from the narrow spectral lines (broad ones indicate a range of Doppler shifts due to the intense heat and rotation of matter around a quasar). These insights, not to mention quite some research and debate, inspired more people to add to the collection! It became a proper science project, led by Carie Cardamone and Kevin Schawinski; and they are now a new class of galaxy, very small, compact, and forming stars on average 40 times faster than the Milky Way.

This extremely serious-looking chap is Richard Proctor, known as "Waveney". He developed websites similar to Galaxy Zoo's classification ones, as a better way of sorting mergers from non-mergers, in summer 2008. Upon request, he did the same for the peas later. He, and others, had a growing interest in irregular galaxies. Irregulars are very common, but small, with no defined structure such as spiral or elliptical. Upon finding out that the largest known sample of them was only 160 or so, Waveney decided to collect irregulars and ask people questions about them himself. He, Jules, Aida and to a very small extent I are working on this and actually trying to write a scientific paper (this is where we need the professionals, I added, because we don't really know how to write a scientific paper . . .).

The scientists were so fascinated by this dedication that they actually did a social science project about us. They collected quotes from the forum to demonstrate amateurs' understanding of the scientific method. They might never have even heard of the scientific method, let alone been taught it; but having participated in science and seen how it's done, they were able to use it themselves. Amateurs do understand, for example, the need for large sample sizes and consistency of method. We weren't told to do any of this work. A wider study found that, besides beautiful galaxies and the thrill of perhaps being the first to see each one, a universally important factor for classifiers was contributing to science. Even people who don't know much science, and have probably picked up a lot of nonsense from the media. Deep down, science is deeply respected by the public, and we do want to be involved.

As I said before, it's been a very moving project for me. There's a sense of collective purpose. Caro drew this artwork from SDSS pictures, which seemed symbolic, as do Weezerd and EdV's quotes. One thing I did was encourage zooites to write Objects of the Day, our answer to Astronomy Picture of the Day: once people were writing for an audience they took immense trouble! There's a shared sense of wonder, everyone is welcomed, and people just love answering each other's astronomy questions.

Now, how is all this useful for She is an Astronomer? Well, one thing I am not telling you is "there, there, dear, don't be a professional, go and be an amateur, pat on the fluffy little head". However, citizen science does actually lack some of the main barriers Karen's project, She is an Astronomer and Galaxy Zoo, reported. It's not a career; it doesn't have the pressure, the competition, the need to relocate. You can put in as much or little time as you please. Amateurs can make a greater contribution than ever now that so much data is available on the web - please use us, we really want to help! At the moment, Jordan's survey did find that more males seem to be taking part than females in classifying; perhaps the time is ripe to try and change this, by making science contribution more attractive to women in wider society. And some people have turned to formal study - at least four of us have started Open University courses - as a result of Galaxy Zoo.

One lady remarked that citizen science might be a great way to keep up while you're taking a career break. Helen said she hadn't actually thought of using citizen science as a recruitment ground for people who'd been turned off at school. Hanny pointed out that women are hardly a minority on the forum, especially the mega-chatterboxes! I explained that I was using the results from Jordan's survey, as people don't always put their gender on their profiles (another lady remarked that she would not want to reveal her gender, which I thought was sad). I'm sure there were another couple of questions - Quentin definitely said something significant - does anyone remember what they were? Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail if you do, or indeed if you have a question of your own.

What I don't think I remembered to say explicitly was, naturally, the one point I really wanted to make: encourage the inclusion of amateurs, and equality and inclusion in general should flourish, making astronomy friendlier to women as a natural by-product. I hope that was implicit throughout the talk!

PS: Hanny very kindly took this picture with her phone and e-mailed it over. Here I am with my first slide!

Related links: The "She is an Astronomer" Conference: Day 1

(Day 2 to follow very shortly, I promise!)


Jules said...

Great read as ever Alice. Thanks for that - wish I could have been there too but this is the next best thing!

Sakib said...

This universe is far too huge for just the professionals to research, I think Galaxy Zoo is one of the greatest public outreach programs. I feel that amateur astronomers don't get the recognition that they deserve, possibly because people assume that "amateurs" are unskilled, in fact the secondary meaning of amateur is to do something for the love of it, which is definitely the case for amateur astronomers. I think one of the best examples of amateur contribution to galactic science is the project of David Martinez Delgado to reveal the "ghosts" of galaxies, the tidal streams of galaxies that were cannibalized by larger galaxies, this prject includes many talented amateur astrophotographers such as Jay GaBany and Ken Crawford. Check out their latest images at and

Also I'm really glad you mentioned Caroline Herschel, one of my favourite astronomers of all time. As well as comets, she discovered dozens of nebulae and star clusters that were added to the Herschel catalog by her brother William Herschel, which became part of the New General Catalog.

Anonymous said...

Good talk, but you must do the it is mentioned
before, the tidal stream project
is also a great project in this
topic. It is a shame that
you overlooked that project in your
talk. Are you really interested in this topic or you are only looking for fame?

Alice said...

The above comment was so hilarious that I thought I'd go ahead and publish, to see if anyone can enlighten me . . . Anonymous, I would like to see you doing homework on Galaxy Zoo, women in astronomy, or indeed the tidal stream project!

Half65 said...

I must say that also is not mentioned overlapping galaxies.
I'm joking Alice.
Overlap ...
Overlap ...
Overlap ...

Alice said...

Hahahaha Half! Love it! :-)