Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's a whole Zooniverse now

Almost two years ago now (has it really been that long?), I learned about the Galaxy Zoo. At the time it looked like an interesting approach to try -- invite the general public to classify galaxies, a task which is
  • useful (to astronomers, at least)
  • reasonably easy for humans
  • not at all easily or well handled by computers
  • able to be split into millions of independent pieces
Given those characteristics, the original project had at least a chance of succeeding, and indeed it has succeeded handsomely. Last April, it announced the 60 millionth classification, and as a result of all this work it now has "an incredibly robust, well-defined and scientifically valid catalogue of Sloan Digital Sky Survey galaxies." It has also produced some significant results, with more in the pipeline.

Along with all that, it's given hundreds of thousands of people (myself included) a chance to participate in real scientific research and see the same images working astronomers see. If that's not a clear win I don't know what is, and it simply couldn't have happened without the web.

As it became clear how well things were working, a second project was launched, aimed at spotting supernovas, again with good results. That project has since been joined by others and the whole crowd has overflowed the original domain into the Zooniverse.

The latest addition, Moon Zoo, is aimed at classifying craters and other features in the heaps and heaps of data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The problem looks to fit all four criteria above and so have every bit as good a chance of success as its predecessors.

For a bonus, some lucky classifiers will run across human artifacts, from orbiters to footprints of astronauts. Take the resolution needed for that times the surface area of the moon and you've got some idea how ridiculously much data is involved.

Not every bright idea on the web makes a significant impact on the outside world, but some do. If you accept that basic research is significant to the world at large, then the Zooniverse has to rank as a major success story.

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