The discovery of a citizen scientist | Hanny van Arkel | TEDxGhent


Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Helena Bowen Before I go on, let me make this clear: I am not an astronomer; remember that. I just accidentally discovered
something in space which astronomers named after me. And I was able to do that
through an online citizen science project called “Galaxy Zoo”. Now, to explain this “Galaxy Zoo”,
I’ll start close to home with a picture of our planet Earth. I’ll keep zooming out. This next one is the Sun,
our most important star, and the Earth is now
a little dot underneath it; and you probably already know this,
but it’s a nice reminder anyway. Together with these other planets,
we form the Solar System; they all dance around the Sun, as well. And the Solar System can be found
in a galaxy like this one. Now, in this picture, one pixel
would be to big to represent the Sun, and if that didn’t blow your mind yet, we have billions of these galaxies
in our Universe. And that’s where Galaxy Zoo comes in. Back in 2007, there were
a couple of astronomers doing research into these galaxies; they were studying their shapes
to learn about how they form, and they had a data set
of about a million pictures. These pictures were automatically taken with this long, digital,
sky survey telescope, and nobody had seen them before. One of the astronomers, Kevin Schawinski
had seen 17,000 of them, in one week, before he decided there’s just not enough
coffee in the world to go on like that. The other astronomer, Chris Lintott,
came up with the idea, “Let’s put these pictures online,
and ask the public to help us.” People like you and me. They thought, “Well, we’ll just put them
there, we explain what we need from them, and we’ll let them help us.” And that’s what they did. And this is what it looks like. You get one of these beautiful images
on your screen if you log on, and there is a set of buttons next to it. You only have to press the button
that best represents the shape of the galaxy
that you see in your image. And you don’t need to worry
about making mistakes because even though you might be
the first person to see this image, it will be shown to other people as well
to make sure is statistically correct. The other thing is,
if you let people do it, then they might see things
that you didn’t ask for; like this picture. I got this on my screen
when I was about a week there; I was an amateur astronomer for a week. And I had to classify the galaxy
in the middle, which I did, pressed the button, and then, I was wondering about
this little blue smudge in it. So I checked the examples
that they gave, and it wasn’t there. Now, I didn’t think
I had discovered something new, I was just curious, so I sent Chris an email and I said,
“What’s this blue stuff below?” But he didn’t came back to me
for a while, for two reasons: one being that the project
turned out to be a huge success, so Chris had many emails, – people asking him if they found
a new alien or something; I mean, to be fair,
kind of looks like it – but when he came to my email,
he didn’t know what it was, he’d never seen anything like this. And that could be very exciting, but it might as well have been
just a smudge indeed. It was the former though; they checked the area,
and it was actually there. It was not a camera defect or anything. They also invited me on the team
to investigate this thing because they looked trough this data set
of a million pictures, and this was the only one. So it’s literally one in a million, and they had no idea what it was. During this process,
it got the pet name Hanny’s Voorwerp. Hanny is my name, and “voorwerp” is
the slightly boring word for “object”. It was made up
by another English volunteer, because he knew
I was Dutch, and I liked it; especially because it stuck
in the official paper so that’s the official name
now internationally. I can also tell you learn a lot from this,
if you’re invited on the team especially, and one of the things
we found out about it is that it’s actually green. That’s one of the first things
we found out. This has to do with the difference
the filters that camera uses, and the human eye sees it in green,
so it’s actually green. But what is it? It’s a huge gas cloud,
it’s galaxy-size so it’s very big. We also know its location: it’s about
650 million light years from Earth. Now, to me, that just means
it’s very, very, very far away. We know it’s relatively close
to the other galaxy next to it, with this slightly
less exciting name, IC2497 – that was the one I had to classify – and it’s very bright and hot, and at first, we couldn’t see
any starts in there, so where did all that energy come from? We didn’t know that. We do now, and this is how it works. They call it the light echo. What you need to know is
that sometimes, these galaxies collide, and they leave behind all this gas which is not as bright; and you also need to know
that in the center of these galaxies there are black holes. They are known
to absorb everything around them, but sometimes, they turn active,
and they sent jets out; and the patch of gas that’s now known
as Hanny’s Voorwerp was lit up by such a jet. So if you look at that,
you’re basically looking back at history of what happened to the black hole. So “Hanny’s Voorwerp” was a big discovery
in every sense of the word, accidentally; and many discoveries followed after that. So I think, of course I think
that scientific research is very important and everybody benefits
from what scientists learn. I’m a big fan
of the citizen scientist projects because everybody can be part of them
even if you are not a scientist. If you are a scientist,
and you have an idea for a project for which you would need the help
of all these volunteers, then you can contact Chris too,
at the Citizen Science Alliance, but if you are like me, you are curious,
you are interested in scientific research, then you can just log on to this universe,
this universe.org, and help change the world
from your own computer screen. Thank you. (Applause)

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