Discovering planets… from your couch

By Peter Griffin 07/10/2015

It was about 25 minutes into Chris Lintott’s Royal Society lecture that the proceedings nearly went off the rails.

Professor Chris Lintott
Professor Chris Lintott

An audience member put his hand up to make a comment, which Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics and Citizen Science at the University of Oxford, paused his talk to answer.

“I’ve seen that shape before,” said the grey-haired man in the audience deadpanned. The image he was referring to was a black image overlaid on a old map of England. An image in the unmistakable shape of a rugby ball.

Lintott, who before his talk had been given some quiet time to unwind – with the sports section of the Dominion Post recounting England’s disastrous exit from its own Rugby World Cup, got the joke immediately – and struggled to keep his composure as the audience dined out on his discomfort. It showed the scientist at his best, humble and witty and revealed what underpins his passion for citizen science. He knows how to relate to people and how to inspire people to get engaged with science.

Lintott is co-director of the Programme on Computational Cosmology and Citizen Science Project Lead in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford and a Research Fellow of New College, Oxford.

His research focuses on galaxy evolution. As he explained last night, our search for planets and galaxies using powerful telescopes such as Kepler and Hubble has massively expanded our knowledge of the universe. He and his colleagues have developed software that analyses images from these telescopes to detect undiscovered planets and galaxies. But the methods aren’t foolproof – there are false positives and some objects get missed.

That’s where the power of the crowd can help. Lintott is the co-founder of Galaxy Zoo, an online crowdsourcing platform where volunteers log in to help classify galaxies. Why do they do it? Lintott related the reasoning of one Galaxy Zoo volunteer, an elderly British man:

“There’s nothing good on the telly and there’s only so much gardening you can do”.

Whatever inspires people to get involved in Galaxy Zoo, they’ve done so in massive numbers. The project started in 2007 when a data set of 900,000 galaxies imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was made available to volunteers online. By the end of the first year, 50 million classifications had been made by more than 150,000 people. Galaxy Zoo has been through numerous other projects since racking up hundreds of millions of classifications from hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

Galaxy Zoo’s success helped spawn Zooniverse, which is a platform applying citizen science to numerous scientific projects, including Galaxy Zoo. Other projects include:

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 11.00.50 amAncient Lives – transcribing texts in Greek from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Snapshot Serengeti – classifying animals at the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania using images gathered from 225 camera traps.

Floating Forests – volunteers look at satellite images to search for large masses of giant kelp in coastal ocean environments.

Over one million volunteers are registered with Zooniverse and the data collected from the projects has apparently led to the publication of 70 scientific papers, which shows that citizen science has a meaningful role in creating new knowledge.

Professor Lintott has a few more days in New Zealand – get to one of his lectures if you can (tonight in Christchurch and on October 10th in Twizel).