Unleash the destructive child in you!
The brilliant Galaxy Zoo website just gets even better. The ultimate citizen science project, Galaxy Zoo asks you to look at a stunning collection of galaxy images (garnered from the vast Sloan Digital Sky Survey), and classify it as either a spiral or elliptical – if it’s a spiral, then also tell which way the spiral is rotating. You might think of two things here:
Isn’t this a job for a computer? Actually no. Teaching a computer to recognise a nice, clean spiral isn’t too hard – teaching it to recognise fuzzy, unclear spirals of different sizes and shapes is really tricky. However, human beings are the best pattern identifiers in the known Universe. Their unique ability to recognise shapes, plus their ubiquity – there are billions of them after all – is a clever shortcut to this problem. Galaxy Zoo has used this to great effect, classifying stacks and stacks of galaxies producing some amazing science (like showing that the Universe does not have a preferred handedness, or discovering the strange Voorwerp).
Now it gets even better. Galaxy Zoo detected 3,000 galaxy pairs in the process of merging, and now they’re testing human ability to the limit. Astrophysicists run numerical simulations of two galaxies colliding with each other, but connecting a simulation to reality is tough. You would have to search through many real-life collisions, comparing with snapshots of your simulation until you found a match (or teach a computer how to do it, which would represent a coup for artificial intelligence and would tell you you’re in the wrong profession). This would take a long time for one person, but not for many. Why don’t you take a look and help solve galaxy evolution along the way?