Saturday, 28 February 2009

You can log off any time you like, but . . .

. . . is a common saying on the forum.

While I'm on the subject of songs, I can't resist another one. Here's the original, which I must confess was inspired partly by Jules and partly by this piece of genius by Kelly Fast and her astronomer friends 14,000 feet high at Hotel Mauna Kea.

One day, someone ought to go through the whole forum and put together a massive volume of all the art and literature that's appeared there. I made a start about a year ago, but it's been coming ever since! For example, "I meant to do my work today", Adrianus V's clever working of the XMM-Newton telescope pointing towards Hanny's Voorwerp, and most of the "Just a small game" thread.

Quite enough links for now.

Again, I've changed - and, I hope - improved this song. I wrote the first version from the point of view of a moderator, but after a while that didn't seem much like good manners, so I've put more galaxies in instead. The last verse, which Jules wrote, ended up on a tankard we made for Chris as a present for organising our trip to Farthings last autumn . . .

(Oh not another link. Just get on with it, Alice!)

"Hotel Galaxy Zoo/Hotel Zoolifornia"

On a dark gridlined background
Cool arcs in the air
Blue twinkles of star birth
Artifact over there
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
Head grew heavy and my fingers froze
Must classify for the night

There they were on the news page
Asking for volunteers
And I was thinking to myself
This could keep me busy for many years
Then they did the tutorial
And they showed me the way
There were helpers on the forum next
Thought I heard them say

Welcome to the hotel Galaxy Zoo
Such a lovely site, such a lovely site,
Such a starry night.
Plenty of room at the hotel Galaxy Zoo
Any time of year, any time of year
You can post pics here.

Their minds are Café-addicted
They got a kettle for tea
They got a lot of pretty, pretty threads
Lots to see.
How they joke in Analysis
It’s biased – see the map.
Some reckon they’re mergers, some say overlap.

So we got pretty spirals
Lenticulars too
Ellipticals, quasars and rings
With a bar going through
And still those buttons are asking from far away
Dreamed about in the middle of the night
Galaxies that say:

Welcome to the hotel Galaxy Zoo
Such a wondrous place, such a magic place
With a friendly face.
Livin' our lives at the hotel Galaxy Zoo
Thousands of us here, thousands of us here
Virtual coffee all year

Mirrored images came
Then the black and whites
They said “You’ll all catch Galaxyzooitis here
Of your own device.”
And in the much-loved Café
They gathered for the jokes
They guess the songs and wonder if
Infinity's gender's a hoax . . .

Last thing I remember, I was
Clicking just one more
I had to find the ObjID
of the place I was before
Relax, said the Zookeeper
We are programmed to receive.
You can log off any time you like,
But you can never leave!

(Thanks to Mr Jules and Paddy for the photos!)

Galaxy Zoo 2 popular for its own server-good

Update, 25th July 2009: Welcome and thanks for coming to anyone who clicked "sing" on Jules's great Birthday Object of the Day for Galaxy Zoo. Scroll down to below the comet picture to find the alternative, Zoo-ified lyrics for the song by Brian May!
(I really think I should change "never ate" to "never slept" - considering how much we talk about food these days!)

Another Galaxy Zoo update, because quite frankly I haven't thought about anything else for the last two weeks. Classifying is working again, as is Favourites and My Galaxies - speaking of which, how would you classify this?

(Reference: 588016878822163060)

Apparently our peak traffic is 300 classifications (whole long galaxy classifications, that is, not just clicks) per second! At this rate we will be done in a few weeks, so the zookeepers had better hurry up with the next project. The general press coverage thread seems to be going well, and the print journalists' failure so far to get the story hasn't prevented this round being twice as popular as it was in August 2007! Chris has written up his take, and our programming genius Arfon has been keeping us up to speed with each development on the Galaxy Zoo Blog sometimes more than once a day, as each new feature gets installed. We were coping with the traffic by allowing people to access "My Favourites" after they'd had their account for 3 days. Speaking of "My Favourites", that's provided interesting news.

The forum and my inbox have both been manic. I've completely revamped the picture-posting guide and have got round to starting to organise some new tutorials and splitting the Help board into forum and astronomy help. Two weeks ago, I had the task of writing to a lot of people to ask them if they'd like to be interviewed about Galaxy Zoo, as members of the public, and feel bad about this now because after all the nervousness and excitement this generated, evidently it wasn't taken up. You never do know what the press will do, I suppose.

We've had a great piece of news: ZookeeperKevin has been awarded an Einstein Fellowship! Now he can spend the next three years studying high energy astrophysics to his heart's content, but he should also have plenty of time for Galaxy Zoo. Many congratulations, Kevin. On a less exalted but still smile-generating note, we now have a Galaxy Zoo Shop - if only it would accept my debit card.

Moving on to general astronomy news, apparently this week is the best time to see Comet Lulin, and tonight is your last chance to vote for what Hubble should look at in April.

Comet Lulin courtesy of APOD:

I rather feel like celebrating our wonderful Galaxy Zoo community and the happiness it generates all over again, so I thought I'd rewrite a song I wrote - or rather, spoofed - back when Dr Brian May got his PhD and prompted a happy thread.

The old words were written back when we were all classifying at top speed, and the original target of each galaxy classified 10 times was achieved not in 3-5 years, but in 3 weeks, and we were dreading Galaxy Zoo being over very quickly. This new version ends more happily than the last one, and indeed Dr Brian's original!


In the year of '07 assembled here the volunteers
In the days when galaxies were new
Here the screen zoomed out into the cold and starry skies
The sweetest sights ever seen.

And night followed day
And the zookeepers all say
Thousands score brave souls classified
For many a happy day clicked the mouse and talked away
Ne'er did work, never ate, just applied.

Yes, we heard your call, though we’re many miles away
Through websites and news from you,
All the stars across the sky, mysteries to satisfy
In the land of our Galaxy Zoo.

In the year of '08 came in some news to make us blue
60 million great clicks, they say
No more left to do at our dear, beloved Zoo
Thus our hearts all heavily weigh.

But we all still want to play, classify come what may
So, dear Team, that cannot be!
Lots of us will still be here, to click "elliptical" next year
On the site where astronomers grew.

Don’t you hear our call, zookeepers of the stars?
Don’t you hear us calling you?
All the spirals we have seen would be left a lovely dream
When time's up for our Galaxy Zoo.

Yes, they heard our call, those keepers of the stars,
Yes, they heard and made Zoo 2!
Still have galaxies and space, all around the human race,
All the science
Still ahead
Let us see.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Yep, lots of people Zoo 2

Looks like we're in for another round of the overwhelming response we got when Galaxy Zoo 1 first launched. So much so that we're having to send people back to Galaxy Zoo 1 for the moment! ZookeeperKevin counted 473 new forum members yesterday evening. I've spent the last couple of days pointing people here and there and answering questions, some on the forum and some by e-mail, and hugely enjoying it - though after a few hours of finding that for every message I answer, two more have appeared in my inbox, I did feel the need to run away and hide for a couple of hours. People want to know many things, and fortunately this time I'm not thrashing around trying to find my own way around the forum or struggling with links and pictures.

People need to know some of the basics, such as how to post pictures and how to tell a star from a galaxy. The diffence is basically that a star is solid and a galaxy isn't. Stars often look like cherries or snowballs, or, if closer up, a solid screen of red or pink. At just the right distance, they make incredible pictures - and with light-scattering in the camera, even more so. Then there's how to tell a merger from an overlap. Mergers tend to be distorted and strange, with long arcs, drawn-out spiral arms, star trails, or just be plain weird like Galactic Animals. It's also common for new zooites to be awestruck by coincidental line-ups of galaxies, particularly in clusters, where they look like a shape or a constellation. Disappointingly, usually there's no interaction or special meaning. Cosmic coincidences turn up all the time . . .

Writing of cosmic coincidences and the Moon, solar eclipses are possible because the Sun is both 400 times the diameter of the Moon and 400 times further away, which means they appear precisely the same size in the sky. How's that for a coincidence? We notice them a lot in astronomy because there's so much out there. Our brains are very good at spotting patterns!

People also want to know where "My Galaxies" has gone. Many of our dedicated users have become very adept at using the SDSS pages to gather extra information, and are disappointed to lose it. Some are adding that no longer having access to this will make our results poorer, and even that they are now getting a dumbed-down version.

The rationale is that what SDSS tells us is what is already known! SDSS is not infallible; it sometimes labels galaxies as stars and vice versa; its redshift is not always correct, etc etc. But more to the point, visual data is the one thing computers really can't do. Seeing the SDSS image can seriously bias the results, so it's now being held back until the galaxy's classified. Then it'll appear in My Galaxies - which will be back soon . . .

Then we lost the biased images. That wasn't a good day for the Galactic Fishing Rod! Here's the picture it's supposed to have - I have worked out how to change the links now; you need to remove the www. and add "zoo1" just before the bit:

Click on the latter and I hope you'll laugh as much as we all did.

We've now been mentioned in an awful lot of blogs and astronomy news sites - thanks to the diligent people who keep posting new links! - but no newspapers seem to have taken us up yet. Is David Cameron really that interesting?

We're keeping you updated, though - keep checking the Galaxy Zoo Blog and also Galaxy Zoo's twitter feed. Oh, speaking of Twitter, I'm on it now - at least it's cheap cheap cheap (sorry) - and Will Gater has posted a very interesting video. It's the diamond ring effect shown in solar eclipses around the Moon - but this time it's the Earth's! Can anyone translate?

Anyway, if you're upset to lose My Galaxies and the SDSS link, or you can't get on to classifying at all, come along to the Newbies Thread to help and be helped out. Or come and chat in the Cafe. Or just succuumb to distractions while they last - once Zoo 2 is back, the galaxies will draw you in . . .

My distractions:

Classify. Miaow. Classify.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Do You Zoo 2?

(Credit: Pat again!)

Today's Object of the Day
commemorates typical Galaxy Zoo joint effort as we soar into space again, this time with a more nitty-gritty classification system.

The beta version of Galaxy Zoo 2 has spent a few months being thoroughly tested, admired, criticised, and tested again - and at 10:30 p.m. went live last night.

As with the launch in July 2007, the zookeepers were keen to publicise it and attract new members. For the last couple of weeks I've been quietly contacting zooites who might be willing to talk to the press. Four of them were on BBC Breakfast this morning. Several more may or may not be contacted by the press today, depending on interest. If you were one of the people I wrote to, thank you very much for getting back to me and for keeping quiet, and the best of luck. If you're feeling a bit left out, I'm sorry about that and do let me know for another time!

At 8:30 p.m. last night I got a phone call from BBC Wales asking if I'd be willing to be interviewed on Good Morning Wales at 8:40 a.m. today. I knew I'd be going to Pembrokeshire College, which is just a few miles up the road - and thank goodness, the car park was almost empty. I didn't know I'd be on my own in the studio! There was a small window, a small table, some switches on the wall, two microphones, a telephone, an instruction sheet and a control box with a lot of buttons. None had spirals on them and none were shiny, so I resisted touching any more than I had to. I was very early so it was rather nerve-racking sitting waiting for my time to ring in. I had to telephone Cardiff first and get a sort of PIN code. At 8:30 I called in and it was the radio. I thought I heard someone ask, "Haverfordwest?" but I was slightly terrified of saying "yes" and disrupting the program! Oh well, now I know what to do. They asked Zookeeper Bob about how to get to the site and what you do, and about different types of galaxies. They asked me about my involvement in the website, and whether threads on the forum get heated. I said we are a very civilised bunch of people and drink a lot of virtual tea! Thanks Good Morning Wales for giving us coverage.

I've made a thread for press coverage and zooite interviews, which have gone brilliantly so far. There's also a new thread for the launch of Zoo II. Hope to see you all there as soon as possible!

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Barred Spirals Lecture at Astrofest by Johan Knapen

(Picture stolen from Pat!)

Galaxy Zoo Get-Togethers are highly recommended - we went to Astrofest again the Saturday before last and I have finally got around to writing up my favourite lecture there. I'm hoping these notes will also lead to some amazing joint Objects of the Day on the forum . . .

Lecture - "Barred spirals: Galaxy evolution in action"

This was a wonderful lecture. Here is Astrofest's page about it. Does Johan Knapen have a website? I couldn't find one, and I would rather like to thank him.

Update, 3rd March 2009: This afternoon I had a big surprise in my inbox: an e-mail from Johan Knapen himself! Thanks so much for writing, and I hope this blog entry is an accurate representation of your lecture. And yes, I will definitely keep writing about galaxies.

Johan's website is here:

About two thirds of spiral galaxies have a bar - one third a "weak bar", one third a "strong bar". It's logical to assume that a stable orbit of stars in a spiral galaxy would be a round or elliptical (i.e. oval) one - but two thirds of galaxies have unexpectedly straight centres, shaped like this:

NGC 1300, which you might have seen elsewhere! Credit:

The bar influences the galaxy's evolution and dynamics, for example its star formation. Gas inflow often occurs in spiral bars, and spiral arms usually begin at the ends of bars.

On the Hubble Tuning Fork diagram, the number after the E on early-type galaxies refers to the height : width ratio. That is, E0 is perfectly round, while E9 is very long indeed (hence the round/medium/cigar-shaped question in Galaxy Zoo II).

Bars often contain dust lanes leading to their centre. The lane is an outline of gas shocks. (Think of the Cat's Eye nebula with all those "ripple-edges".) Because of this, there is often a ring of star formation. This can be an "inner" or "outer" ring:

In fact, some have "nested bars" - that is, two or three bars in total, with a smaller bar (or two) at not-quite-right angles to the main one.

The shape of the spiral doesn't seem to determine whether it has a bar or not; all spiral types seem to be able to have them. It is more common for a spiral to have a bar than not. Infra-red imaging is good at detecting them where optical has not done so. Blue and ultra-violet light is particularly poor at bar detection.

Why a bar forms is unclear. But any asymmetry in the galaxy seems to end up forming a galaxy bar! A bar is very stable. It has a lot of gravitational strength, so more and more stars join it. Why the disruption in the galaxy occurs in the first place is not yet known. We were shown a video of the formation, which I can't reproduce here, but I went through our barred spirals thread to find some examples. In fact I prefer these to the video, because "0 years" looked like an E0 to me.

The bar itself rotates. It rotates in the shape of a sausage, or caterpillar wheels on a tank. An elliptical bar orbit is no problem. In fact, a star can go in any crazy orbit you like, and stay there for eternity unless something else disrupts it. I couldn't believe the weird shapes we were shown - nor my luck in finding the same exact ones by googling "box orbit"! Here they are, at a website called Dynamical Astronomy Javalab. Elliptical loop orbit, banana orbit, box orbit and fish orbit. Who'd have thought it? I'd love to track some star orbits in elliptical galaxies.

If we add all these complex orbits up, you get what I immediately recognised from Galaxy Zoo as a boxy core. The Hickson 87 Compact Group's edge-on spiral is a good example.

So far, so good. Now, stars are not the only things you get in galaxies. There's gas too. Gas needs to follow the star orbit, as stars outline gravitational potential. The gas loses momentum, collides (as clouds), hence the shock outlines - and therefore it loses energy and angular momentum, so it has to move even further into the centre . . . and so on. For gas, orbiting in a normal circle or oval is all right; but a boxy shape has sharp corners which it cannot suddenly turn as stars can - and that is where the shocks take place. Hence . . . star formation, often in the form of rings. NGC 4314 is an example:

Credit: APOD.

(We were given a reference of Athanassoula 1992. I am still Googling to choose the best site out of rather a lot of heavy-going ones.)

For an example of a weak bar, but a similar starforming ring, we were also shown NGC 7742. (There can be such rings in galaxies with no bars at all. I must admit I can't see a bar here, but I don't have infra-red eyes.)

Credit: APOD.

Such inward-spiralling gas and star formation is also an excellent fuel for an AGN. An AGN is a non-stellar energy source; it must be fed by gas.

This is all "secular evolution", i.e. the internal evolution of the galaxy. For more on secular evolution, check out the Kormendy and Kennicutt model - fortunately it doesn't matter that I didn't have time to copy the whole thing down!

Knapen re-emphasised that infra-red light is best for observing bars (I suspect because of the high amount of gas involved, meaning a lower temperature, but I'm not sure). At a redshift of over 1, bars are hard to study. He also remarked that star formation does not take place in the bar itself, but in the arms and in the centre of the galaxy.

Bars are an interesting phase of galaxy evolution and he hopes they will be studied a lot more; he recommends kinematics and morphology to determine their structure and properties, which I'll let a real physicist explain. S4G, the Spitzer Survey of Stellar Structure in Galaxies, is surveying 2000 galaxies, though someone will need to sort through them all. (Its telescope has warmed up, so it needs to study infra-red.) Could that possibly be a job for us? I think we'd better write in . . .

Credit: APOD.

We finished off with the above beautiful picture of NGC 1672, and with the punchline: "The Universe is full of bars, so never a thirsty moment!"

Potential Objects of the Day

I reckon we can get several, guys. What about:

- General bar evolution

- Boxy bulges and weirdo orbits

- Rings of stars

- The double/triple bars thing.

Any of you guys, please go for it. I've got a thread running which you'll find if you're a regular Object of the Day poster (if you're not yet, but now are inspired to become one, please write to me on the forum!). Alternatively, anyone fancy writing a joint one with me?

Update: Thursday 19th February: Barred Spirals and Barred Evolution.

Galaxy Zoo references that immediately spring to mind:

- The "Best Barred Spirals" topic in the Galaxy Zoo Forum. Well worth a read.

- The "Why Barred Spirals?" thread - ditto.

- Boxy bulges, from the Galaxy Zoo Beta Testing

Further notes and research I did before I found the best stuff:

- A news item Hubblesite - "Barred Spiral Galaxies Are Latecomers to the Universe".

- More on orbits - a PDF file at astrosmo, whatever that is . . .

Friday, 13 February 2009

Oooooh - countdown . . .

Ooooooooh . . . go to now - you get an interesting message . . .

I have been seeing this nearly every day for about 20 months:

but now:

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Job Interview of the Future . . .

How could I have missed this? Thank heavens for sensible family who save things. Following the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will authorise widespread data sharing powers, heading to the committee stage, Simon Carr has written the most frightening sketch I've seen in a long time.

A man goes for a job interview and he looks the likeliest for the position. Questions about his abilities and aptitude? Forget that. Just pop your ID card in. Now let's investigate your mother, your partner, her daughter from a previous relationship, and all your and their medical information and past real and imagined offences. This is all possible not least because supermarkets are happy to share with anybody what you buy, and your ISP tells your job interviewer what websites you visit. The job interviewer is permitted to predict when your mother will die, pass judgment over "your anger management issues" and request letters from your partner and your counsellor over private matters in the home.

The most frightening thing is that the data is clearly already known by hundreds of "agencies", but, on the strength of a five-minute job interview, it is the job interviewer who decides the fate of the man's partner's child. Over the top? Unlikely? I hope so. But watch the way it's writing. The computer's doing sums and ticking boxes. That's the way it works, isn't it? Now, I've nothing against whistle-blowing when it's needed. Those soldiers who physically and sexually abused the Iraqui citizens who had had the temerity to turn up to collect routine food supplies were found out because the woman developing their photographs called the police. That was thought. The sketch demonstrates the computer doing the thinking and the human taking part in the battle over whose backside (excuse me) is covered at the expense of who else's. Think China under Mao, Iran under the Islamic Revolution.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When your every penny spent is counted and must be accounted for, people will turn to bartering. When abortion was illegal, many women died as a result of backstreet abortions. I mentioned this to my local MP, Stephen Crabb, two years ago in an e-mail around the time I joined NO2ID. He sent me a fantastic response, and two months ago he kindly gave me permission to publish our correspondence here - my thanks for this. I've been waiting for the right moment and this seems to be it.

Dear Ms Sheppard,
Thank you very much for your email of 7th November regarding the Government’s plans to introduce identity cards. I share your concerns and I am committed to opposing this legislation.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that the introduction of ID cards will not help tackle terrorism and fraud. Similar schemes have not stopped terrorist incidents taking place in the countries where they were introduced. Past examples show that identity fraud and benefit fraud cannot be prevented by this new system.

Moreover, I am worried about the erosion of civil liberties that ID cards could involve. I regard the introduction of ID cards as a dangerous infringement on the individual’s privacy and liberty.

The ‘two-tier society’ that you mention in your email is indeed likely to occur, and its negative impact would, I am sure, outweigh any benefits that the scheme might be thought to have. In fact, I remain unconvinced that ID cards would have any positive impact on our society.

I will, therefore, continue to oppose this legislation.
Thank you once again for making me aware of your views on this important matter.
Kind regards,

Writing to your MP is a good idea. Besides making your views known as a citizen of our country, it's wonderfully encouraging to get a letter like this. I encourage you all to do it, whether it's on ID cards or anything else. I keep going on about how astronomy and citizen science is democratic. I wonder whether that'll lead to the politicians' inboxes filling up a bit more?