Can it really be a week? The launch of Galaxy Zoo will live long in the memory for sheer strangeness as the sudden realisation that what for a while has seemed like a crazy idea was actually going to work.
Let me back up a bit. Some of the work I’ve been doing here in Oxford is based on a sample of 50,000 galaxies which were classified by eye by, among others, Kevin Schawinski. Actually, he’d badgered me (rather rudely, I thought at the time!) in the talk I gave during my interview about the pointlessness of making the selection any other way. Once I got here, we were talking one day and one of us said wistfully that it would be nice to do the other 950,000 and complete the job properly, and then it hit us that this might actually be possible.
That was, I think, late February, and since then we’d been working pretty steadily toward a launch that was always a few weeks away. 10 days or so ago we heard that the BBC might be interested, and so it was that last Tuesday morning I found myself with Kevin and Kate Land at Science Oxford along with a TV crew and some surprisingly enthusiastic sixth formers from a local school who we’d roped in. The filming went well, but there were other science stories around, most notably a story about how scientists were right about global warming (well, duh!), and I was quietly pessemistic. The press release went out, and we waited.
At 6.45am last Wednesday, I was ushered into a small room in a building on Millbank, just down from the Houses of Parliament. Sitting there – desperately preparing for an interview with the Prime Minister – was John Humphrys. Being able to see the person interviewing me was hugely helpful, and almost overcame the nerves of being in front of one of the most famously intimidating interviewers in the country. At the end, clutching a styrofoam cup of BBC coffee on the quiet street outside, I thought I’d done a reasonable job. Around this time news of Galaxy Zoo appeared on the BBC news website and then all hell broke loose.
Despite the presence of stories like the fourth on the list above, we remained in the ‘most emailed’ list for most of the day, and the computer generating images just couldn’t cope with the traffic. We spent the rest of the day personally answering complaints that the site wasn’t working, explaining that we were working on it and that all would be well soon. In a classic demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, changing the site so that images were available faster led to a dramatic increase in web traffic. Our server had survived multiple sloan press frenzies, and all the data releases from that project but Galaxy Zoo well and truly broke it. Jan, ourtself-proclaimed ringmaster (Do zoos have rings? Hmm…) has worked very, very hard and it wasn’t his fault, but even he signed his email ‘Whew!’. At this point I started giggling to myself.
More emails to answer, half of them while sitting through the announcement of the most distant galaxies yet seen (wifi in lecture theatres is A Good Thing).
By the time I went to bed that night, everything was fixed and the classifications were flooding in, along with email after email with beautiful and amazing sights. This is one of my recent favourites, from claire:
Ever since, the emails (sorry if we haven’t responded to yours yet – we will) and the classifications have just kept flooding in. All our casual plans to sit down after a couple of days to see how things are going were thrown out the window, and we’ve been left desperately running to keep up. It seemed that everyone out there wanted to be part of this – to explore the Universe and to help science – or just wanted to see pretty pictures. There was also a fairly constant stream of questions about particular objects which we will get too. I’m only half joking when I’ve been telling the team we’re going to set up a website to invite the public to answer the queries sent in. We’ll call it Email Zoo.
Seriously, I’ve been inspired by just what it’s possible to do with this internet thing, and we have lots of ideas for new exhibits and attractions for the Zoo, in order to make use of our more than 50,000 research assistants. One idea might be to do freeform classification – which galaxy does this one most look like? – and see if the old catagories of spirals and ellipticals are actually any good. We’re also looking for different data sets to let you loose on, and so we’re a long way from done right now. I can’t wait for next week at the Zoo. Thanks for all your help, and thanks to the Team