The Galaxy Zoo project

An amateur astronomer took this picture and asked: What’s the blue blob?

The Economist this week covers the story of Galaxy Zoo, the collaborative web project for astronomers that found the blob. Their blog is here.

Earlier projects in distributed computing, such as SETI@home, which searched for extraterrestrial life, have used the power of millions of home computers. But more recently, scientists have begun to realise that distributed human brain power itself can be a useful commodity, as in working out the shape of proteins. Dr Szalay says that the voorwerp episode has shown how immensely valuable the public can be.

When the data were put online Dr Szalay thought it was only a matter of time before someone made a big discovery. “It just happened much faster than we thought.” In the past year 40m classifications of galaxies have been submitted on 1m galactic objects in the Galaxy Zoo. Dr Lintott says that the project has proved that the public en masse is as good as professional astronomers at classifying galaxies.

The next step is to ask people to do more complicated things, such as keeping an eye out for weird objects, which is bound to appeal to armchair astronomers. Hanny’s object had been there for decades, unnoticed in the astronomical archives. The idea now is for the public to explore strange new galaxies; to seek out new voorwerps and to boldly go where no amateur has gone before.

I first installed the Seti software back in 2001, and managed to get it going on several PCs, getting a reasonable amount of workunits done. It lasted a few months and I eventually stopped. No particular reason either.

The Economist are right to point out that it is human power that may be even more rewarding than computing power, and astronomy seems like the perfect discipline to test the idea. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is another similar stab at crowd sourcing.