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Hanny's Object, and How the 'Non-Expert' Can Drive Your Next Breakthrough

Hanny's Object, and How the 'Non-Expert' Can Drive Your Next Breakthrough

In this blog I'm going to show you how one of Galaxy Zoo's "non-expert" citizen scientists made an unexpected discovery that drove a breakthrough, and how the founders of Galaxy Zoo were able to evolve and create Zooniverse, which uses crowds for a variety of scientific research.

In my last post, I talked about how Galaxy Zoo's clean design, simple interface and commitment to community helped it become a viable presence in scientific research.

Most important, perhaps, Galaxy Zoo also showed how a non-expert point of view can bring a fresh, naive perspective to a problem that can lead to original thinking and breakthroughs. I'm often fond of saying that "an expert is someone who can tell you exactly how something can't be done."

Kevin Schawinski, the astrophysicist co-founder of Galaxy Zoo, told me that as its thousands of users was helping catalog 1,000,000 galaxies for the site, one user in particular, a Dutch schoolteacher named Hanny van Arkel, noted a bizarre shape next to a spiral galaxy.

"Because Hanny van Arkel was a human being and not an algorithm," Schawinski said, "she asked herself what this strange blot might be, and not knowing, she went on to pose that same question on the Galaxy Zoo forum."

Since no one on the forum could tell her, the question was elevated to the Galaxy Zoo scientists, who did further research. And it turned out to be something very significant. It appears that this bluish-green blot, now called Hanny's Voorwerp (Dutch for Hanny's object) is the light echo of a dying quasar. A quasar surrounds a supermassive black hole at the center of a giant galaxy.

"This was not just any quasar but the nearest quasar to us, and it has implications about black-hole physics and black-hole creation," Schawinski said. "And we wouldn't have known that this object was there at all if it hadn't been for Hanny, a citizen scientist asking, 'What's that weird blot?'"

"You could imagine trying to write some sort of sophisticated query to look for bluish-purple fuzzy stuff and create a program and probably find nothing," Schawinsky added. "Or you could wait for a bunch of people to get together and sort through the data." As it happens, citizen scientists have since found several dozen very good candidates for what are now called "voorwerps," Schawinski told me. "It's really exciting."

If you enlist citizen scientists to help comb through your data you realize two things:

  1. You not only benefit from the classifications but also the wisdom of the crowds. You get a statistically well-understood answer for each object.
  2. You benefit from the human element. "People can spot anomalies that an algorithm or machine would miss," Schawinski said. "And you find all the weird things in your data that you didn't expect."

As this Galaxy Zoo project was winding down, its founders realized the power of the crowd they had uncovered and that to move to the next step, they needed "to prove to the science community that this kind of research was useful," said Schawinsky.

So they used the data they had amassed and wrote a series of peer-reviewed journal papers -- now more than 30 -- "to show that this was not a simple outreach activity, or a PR activity," explained Schawinsky, "it's real science."

In fact, the tag for the group's next site, Zooniverse, became: "Real science online."

So they're not just students: they're co-scientists. "The citizen scientists are our collaborators," Schawinsky said. "We put them on papers as co-authors. That was important."

Two further lessons:

  1. It's important that the work be recognized as real -- in this case, actual science -- and not some sort of educational activity.
  2. People not only want to do something they find meaningful -- they want to be recognized for it.
  3. Schawinsky continued, "Now we have calls for proposals -- at first it was space science and astrophysics but now it's all areas of science -- where people say, 'Hey, we have this mountain of data and we can benefit from having citizen scientists go through it.'"

    In my next blog I'm going to write about how a new online platform called Ponoko has enabled inventors, designers and creators around the world to manufacture more easily, more efficiently and move production as close as possible to consumption while in the process easing the world's carbon footprint.

    NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

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