Wednesday 25 March 2009

"Welcome to the zoo . . ." The galaxies that made us love them

Messier 109 as seen on SDSS

I often suspect that, in science lessons at school, most observant people have this nagging sensation that deep down something is wrong. They're writing out neat equations on paper, measuring the lengths of springs or the oscillation times of pendulums, typing mysterious formulae into their calculators to bring out results that, whilst they may show a satisfactory pattern, they in themselves don't mean much. They're learning the names of the colours of the rainbow using the mnemonic "Richard of York gave battle in vain", while out of the window last week, across the horizon tomorrow, might well be a breathtaking, ethereal stripe that makes the most blase student gasp and point it out.

NGC 2785 and UGC 4867

We know there are the most thrilling things out there. We know, because we've been told, that there are little molecules vibrating and doing all sorts of funny things with their electrons that we can't see. We know that out of our cities roam wonderful animals, whose lives, from the majestic tiger to the tiny little beetle under the windowsill, are complex and would be marvellous to watch. We know there are stars and great sights above our head at night, if only the streetlights and clouds and tiredness at bedtime would go away - we remember what we hear about black holes and warped space-time . . .

Galaxy Cluster Abell 2151

The trouble we have with all this is that the older we get, the less we feel we can touch it. The childhood excitement we felt for science is akin to that we'd feel for a toy that got taken away and given to someone younger. Sour grapes such as "oh well it's boring" feels better than missing it. As Chris remarks in this podcast, most people drop science after GCSEs. Most of the handful of A level students go on to something else. Only a few science undergraduates go on to do a PhD, and after their PhD, only those who remain are entitled to be called "scientists" and wear white coats and make discoveries. That doesn't mean the public don't respect science. If you believe the papers, "a scientific study" is gospel. It was done by people who managed to get through all those formulae, whose experiments went right, whose application of key words pleased the examiners - again and again and again. These are people most of us will never become. Many of us wouldn't feel entitled to touch science for ourselves, even if we did know how.

NGC 2403

But for over 50 years we have had The Sky at Night. We've had the Moon landings. And for a shorter, but substantial time, we've had the digital revolution and international efforts such as the Hubble Space Telescope. These pictures appear in books, on TV, in newspapers. There's no mistaking that astronomy is real. So when the Internet calls, "Scientists Seek Galaxy Hunt Help", with assurances that you need no astronomy background to take part, how could that not be exciting? (After teaching hundreds of children, I have yet to hear anyone say it sounds boring!)

Besides, we're spending more and more of our time on the Internet. As Clay Shirky pointed out in the Web 2.0 Conference (an excellent article, by the way - a must-read in my opinion!), sitting back and passively watching TV isn't good enough for everybody any more. In a society whose corporations are getting huger and huger, where the most rebellion most of us can enact is playing Solitaire and pinching the company's paperclips rather than working, people like to be part of their entertainment - to contribute as well as to receive. So citizens are now contributing to web pages and public collective efforts. This includes Wikipedia as well as things like lolcats and youtube.

NGC 3945

Wiki? Our temple of accuracy and reliability? Ha ha, yes, I know. But what a resource, and it's free to all! That brings me to my next point. Knowledge is the greatest thing we can have. We have hands, we can buy things for pleasure, we can party, we can build and destroy. I don't think there's anything as thrilling or as worth striving for as knowing exciting things.

(Picture: NGC 3718.)
Knowledge is so valuable that is has become a market exploit. It is a commodity - to be packaged and abused and chopped into regulation sausages and spread as thinly as it can for the most money.

At school, the point is passing exams. The original point of these were to prove you knew something. Now, of course, the point is to impart as little information as possible to get the maximum exam results. Universities are now market-driven, to scoop up as many students as possible for higher and higher fees. "Learning styles" and "multiple intelligences" are heavily probed as new methods to wring higher and higher exam results out of bored or confused children. Having a qualification depends very little on knowledge really, if you ask me. It's a way to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the job market, and minimise the number of annoying application forms people have to read - to keep society heterogenous and prevent dangerous things like too much democracy. Yet knowledge is still the excuse. It's still the most beautiful tool we know.

And we still want it. We still read . . . we still go to the Open University . . . we still watch documentaries and talk about them . . . and now, 200,000 of us classify galaxies.

Two of the most important things to people in Galaxy Zoo are the beautiful pictures, and the contribution to science. Because people still respect science - it's the truth, or the nearest we can get to it. To be part of it, totally unexpectedly for most of us, is an honour and a deep awe and exhiliaration.

And this is real science. We're not rehearsing - we're the ones drawing up the data! People often worry about whether they've made the "right" classification, and we explain that the answers are not there in the back of a textbook - we're the first ones here. We're like artists learning to paint by painting, rather than just reading and writing about doing so. We're at the cutting edge.

IC 749 and IC 750

The zookeepers share the data with us all. We're treated as collaborators. People often complain that they don't hear things very quickly or often, but most of us are getting used to that being part of science - that you don't just rush ahead, you have to be 100% sure it's correct, and that takes time. And it's pretty exciting to have discovered a so-far-unique object, and revolutionised galaxy morphology and colour. And all this due to citizens! Very well summed up in this topic on the forum: "Research power to the people!" It is my hope that, now that science education has become (to many) so unsatisfactory, citizen science will replace it.

Copeland's Septet

What about my favourite place in the world - the forum? (You knew I was going to get onto that. I'll oblige . . .)

Everybody gets greeted with "Welcome to the zoo!" Many people are astonished, not to mention relieved. "What a nice place!" Now, there are some particular freedoms to the Internet - that you can be anonymous, and therefore get away with saying all kinds of things you don't generally say. (I once heard about a Korean tradition where every so often everyone can put on a mask and say just what they think.) You can be like a child again: trying on new faces, being a fireman or an astronaut . . . You can also work off the rage and frustration you feel at the world. Look on most websites - people talk as they would never dare speak to others in real life. There's something thrilling about the mixture of liberty and venom, but it's mostly just depressing.

People who are used to this are genuinely shocked - and feel as if I've played a malicious trick on them when they "get Aliced" - to discover that Galaxy Zoo doesn't work that way. We won't have swearing, violence, insults, adult language, etc. What we also don't tolerate is selfishness or unkindness. Perhaps that's partly my fault for being extremely strict in the early days - with a lot of confidence and encouragement from zookeeperKevin. Posts that are merely smileys or greetings, which would be deleted as spam on other forums, will stay; on the other hand, any trolling is immediately pounced on. I don't think I quite intended Galaxy Zoo to be so "different" - perhaps the very fact that I'm generally rather ignorant of the Internet helped me along, that I had few examples to follow. I've found myself telling people off for minor name-calling and making assumptions about each other, for example, "you think this because that is your background/level of education". I've been stunned and moved to see people actually apologise later for doing this. I've been lectured at length about "other forums", that I'm a cowardly censor, power crazed, etc. etc. by people who disagree with my decisions about what stays and what gets deleted. There doubtless are times I have been a bit too strict. I certainly don't claim to have done everything right . . .

NGC 6340

I think that what we have at Galaxy Zoo is the opposite type of freedom. This modern world doesn't call for much niceness. Niceness is seldom admired in the office, up the corporate ladder, in business transactions. Traditional recipients of human kindness, such as children, are herded well away from adults - regarded by some as dangerous vandals, by others as legal liabilities too dangerous to so much as look at without fear of prosecution. More and more of us live alone. Many of us are depressed. There's this great upwelling of goodness and kindness and effort in so many people with nowhere to draw on it. But . . . the Galaxy Zoo community has a place for it.

People come along needing picture-posting help every day. People all want galactic signatures. People talk about their lives, their hospital appointments, the deaths of their pets, the annoyances of their bosses and jobs. People are dying to learn. There are beautiful pictures ready for creative art. Things happen every day - the daily routine of Object of the Day means there is something new on the site daily, and now that zooites are involved in it, the amount of research and effort going in is incredible.

And we definitely learn a lot together. As Weezerd put it perfectly: "The beauty of this site is that it is so level. There is no status attached to newbie, oldie, zooite, zookeeper...we all try to work on an equal footing. Of course, some know more than others, but in here that knowledge is made available for sharing, not for overshadowing." For me, that is education as it should be.

Messier 60 - two overlapping galaxies

Together, we do the great and small. Together, we participate in the largest citizen science project there is; together we probe the Universe and build the best thing I know. Together, we swap jokes and post pictures of cakes and cups of tea. I hope that citizen science spreads, and the culture we have here with it. Sattareh Farman Farmaian points out in her wonderful book "Daughter of Persia" that the Islamic Revolution took place because there was no strong alternative for the people to follow - no well-known democrats, only dictatorship or religious extremism. Citizen science is a strong alternative for marketed knowledge and exams.

Galaxy Zoo is an escape from the nastiness of the world - it is the ideal I gave up looking for years ago, and still hardly dare believe I've found. But it's real. It's a place that needs me. It's where you can know you're safe, that nobody will attack you (at least not without a few consequences), where you can be curious without being called uncool, where you can be ignorant without being called stupid. I feel that EdV sums up our Zoo perfectly in his breathtaking thread "Humbled", and Caro does likewise in her artwork (below). We are all so different on the forum: bonded by one common instinct, the special human need to look up and reach for the stars.

"In the heart of most of us there is always a desire for something beyond experience. Hardly any of us but have thought, some day I will go on a long voyage, but the years go by and still we have not sailed."
- Richard Jeffries


Half65 said...

Alice. No words.
Simply a stunning post.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful entry :-)