Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the week of March 26th, 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we will talk to astronomer Kevin Schawinski about a galactic opportunity for you and we will go on a quick tour of a new very green building on the Yale campus. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. I spent March 24th on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. One of the researchers I spoke to was Kevin Schawinski about an unusual project that you can contribute to. We spoke in his office.
Steve: So Galaxy Zoo, right away it sounds like fun, but it's a really serious effort to get regular people involved in science and obviously it benefits you, too. I want you to just tell us about it.
Schawinski: So Galaxy Zoo is a Web site through which we invite anybody out there with a computer to help us in some astrophysics research. It really boils down to a task that it turns out that computers are really terrible at, which is recognizing shapes; and on the other side, human brains, humans are really great at [recognizing shapes]. And one of the challenges in modern astronomy is that data sets have become so large—we've gone from hundreds to thousands to millions of galaxies—and a pair of human eyes is still the best way to sort through different kinds of galaxies and put them in categories that we can then analyze. And so it turned out that with these large data sets, there aren't enough researchers, scientists, graduate students in the world to analyze [them], so we turned to get help from the public.
Steve: And you got it in numbers much bigger than you ever dreamed.
Schawinski: Absolutely, when we put the first Web site online, within the first 24 hours, so many people logged on that actually one of our servers physically melted.
Steve: Physically melted—it didn't just go down. It was destroyed.
Schawinski: An actual cable melted because it was overheated.
Steve: Well. So how many people do you actually have around the world now helping you with this project?
Schawinski: So after the launch of Galaxy Zoo 2 we have now exceeded the 200,000-user mark.
Steve: What kind of quality control do you exercise over a laboratory staff of 200,000 people?
Schawinski: It turns out that, again, because the human brain is such a fantastic pattern-recognition machine, almost anybody is really good at this. So when we compare what, say, members of the public [do] compared to professional astronomers, there is no difference; in fact, in many ways members of the public, citizen scientists, are better at this task because they don't have any pet theories, they [are not] going to [get] hung up on little details, so they just go for it. It turns out your gut reaction is still the best classification out there.
Steve: The professionals might see too many options in something?
Schawinski: Yeah, they might get hung up on the detail that's really not important, and the initial reaction that you get from an image turns out most often to be right.
Steve: What were you doing when you decided that this was the way to go, that you needed the help of the public?
Schawinski: So I was looking for my PhD work. I was looking for a particular kind of galaxy, blue elliptical galaxies. These are galaxies that are sort of roughly spherical shaped as opposed to spiral galaxies, disk galaxies like our own Milky Way. There really wasn't a good catalogue of these blue ellipticals out there, because most people [just said] things that are red that have stopped forming stars are elliptical galaxies. And so as part of my research, I classified by hand about 50,000 galaxies into elliptical and spiral galaxies like you do in Galaxy Zoo, and we immediately realized that this is a very powerful way of doing things. Only there really wasn't, it just wasn't feasible to this all by myself or in a small team and that's when one night in the pub actually we hit on the idea that, "Oh! Let's put them on the Internet and then invite members of the public to lend us a hand."
Steve: Are those [the] only two choices right now elliptical or spiral? Or are you dealing with more options when people sign in to help out?
Schawinski: Originally yes, it was a very simple classification scheme. But a couple of weeks ago, we launched Galaxy Zoo 2, which is a much more elaborate classification scheme. It's a series of questions which then decides what we are going to ask you next in detail and it is in fact the first thing that the members of the public, the citizen scientists told us, you know: "Please give us more options, we can really do this."
Steve: Did you have help from non-astronomers from computer science people, from psychologists or anybody else chip[ping] in to design the whole interface with the public?
Schawinski: The biggest help we got was from a professional Web developer that created our fantastic interface which is really gorgeous, I think. Other areas of science started coming in later when we started encountering things, effects that we later learned were due to human neurology rather than the universe being very strange.
Steve: Give me an example.
Schawinski: So we found very early on that we asked people to tell us whether a galaxy was clockwise or counterclockwise rotating; if you could tell, in order to test the isotropy of the universe. So if you look into different directions into the sky, the universe should be the same. This was one test of that. And to our horror very early on, we found that most people returned a slightly higher number of counterclockwise rotating spirals than clockwise. So it's really puzzling. It's the same effect no matter where you looked in the sky and the implication of that would have been that that we are in a sort of special place in a sense that you would be in the center of the universe because we have the special vantage point. We then tried to think of ways where this might come from and it hit upon us that maybe it's on the other side. Maybe the universe is perfectly normal and it has something about humans about us and so we mirrored the images to see what would happen and lo and behold the effect went the other way or rather the same way around and so it turns out that there's something about human perception that means that you're slightly more confident perhaps about counter clockwise rotation versus clockwise. And so we realized now that it's not cosmology, it's neurology, and so now there are neurologists studying this by putting people into brain scanners and showing them pictures of rotating galaxies.
Steve: You mean your work has prompted this new work by neurologists because of that anomalous result?
Schawinski: Yes, absolutely. Yes, probably
for the first time that astrophysicists had to fill out ethics forms.
Steve: Very interesting. So again what you're saying is that when you flipped the images, let's say it was 55 to 45 percent in favor of counterclockwise and when you flipped the images you still got 55 percent counterclockwise.
Schawinski: Right. Except, of course, the image was flipped.
Schawinski: And so in reality it was clockwise.
Steve: So no matter what way they were actually facing you still get this weird result where people see it as going the other way.
Schawinski: That's it.
Steve: Very interesting. I heard that you have some kind of interesting stories about the individuals who are out there working in their homes on the galaxy identification. Some of the people have shared their stories with you.
Schawinski: Absolutely. I mean, citizen scientists are [an] incredibly diverse group, and they are incredibly helpful. They are making research possible that otherwise we could not have done. And they're very self-organizing and they are very 21st century in their attitude. They organize their own meetings. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, from school teachers, from government officials, from students; a lot of parents tell us they do it with their children and that their children are better. And I believe we have inspired at least a number of people to pursue their interest in science in other ways. They've just learned of one Galaxy Zoo user who's interest in astrophysics was so sparked by Galaxy Zoo that he is now involved in a university course in astrophysics.
Steve: There's an article from an Indian newspaper, a Web site, posted on your door, there refers to Hanny's Voorwerp, right? And Hanny is one of your distributing computing people.
Schawinski: Yes she is. Hanny van Arkel is a Dutch school teacher who was the 26th person to classify a galaxy; but her attention [was] soon drawn to a weird, strange blob shape next to it, which she recognized as being unusual; something that a machine would never have recognized. This object sat in the data for the last six or seven years and nobody flagged it as unusual until a human being looked in and said, "Hold on a minute, that looks weird." And she alerted us to it and we've been studying this strange object ever since. As far as we can tell, it's the leftover ghost of an enormously powerful luminous accreting supermassive black hole in a galaxy actually very near to us. It was the most nearby quasar, perhaps 100,000 years ago; and the light from this quasar lit up this cloud of gas right next to this galaxy that is still shining even though the quasar may be long gone; and so allowing us this unique insight into what supermassive black holes really do, how they feed over time scales we could never observe within the human lifespan.
Steve: And she gets that thing named after her for that effort.
Schawinski: Absolutely. In fact we didn't even name it; before we got [around to it], the users themselves decided to name it after her, first Hanny's Object, but then decided that the Dutch word for "object"—"Voorwerp"—sounded much cooler and so it became to known as Hanny's Voorwerp. And in the hope that perhaps we find other objects like it, in which case we will have established a class of objects, named objects.
Steve: And is it just galaxyzoo.org or what, how do people access it?
Schawinski: Yeah, you just log on to galaxyzoo.org and you sign up after a quick introduction to how to classify galaxies, you are ready to go out and contribute to astrophysics research, and if you're really interested you can also join our online community and a discussion forum and a blog.
Steve: That sounds great for your astronomy people out there and, you know, anybody else who is interested in actually doing real contributions to ongoing research. You know, this is a way to do it. The age of the citizen scientist has pretty much gone by in fields like chemistry and [a] lot of physics, but in astronomy it's thriving.
Schawinski: Absolutely, and I think the real age of citizen scientist is still coming as we learn to harness the power of the Internet and as we go beyond just giving you a program that you run in the background as your screen saver and we tap into the power of your brains. We need your brain to do science.
Steve: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences has a new home called Kroon Hall. As you would suspect from the name of the department, some extra care went into putting up this structure. I spoke to the Department's communications director David DeFusco in a large open space on the second floor of the building.
DeFusco: Kroon Hall which is the main administrative building for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies actually is sitting atop the former site of a power plant—you know, Brownfield—and this building is about 218 feet set back from Prospect Street, 57 feet wide and it extends right into the heart of Science Hill for Yale University. And the design of the building actually is to minimize energy [use]—[it's] passive solar design. So, far example, the south facade, the length of the building, well it was designed this way to maximize solar penetration and heat on the south side during winter.
Steve: Completely passive, just windows.
DeFusco: In the north side it's built into a hillside for thermal, also too, we use a 100-kW PV array on the roof; and we have our rain garden in the south courtyard that recycles water off the roof and off the ground by the use of aquatic plants, and that water is then pumped back into the building for use in toilets and for irrigation of the ground, and we predict that we are going to save about a half a million gallons of city water a year.
Steve: [Tell me] more about the roof—you get, 100 kW is an estimate of what its potential maximum output is?
DeFusco: Yes. The building also uses geothermal heating and cooling. So [it] uses a relatively constant temperature of the ground water which is about 55 degrees; there are four 1,500 foot deep wells on the east side, I believe, and that water is then pumped in to the building and it's either compressed to heat it or expanded it to cool it, almost like an air conditioner and that is then used to heat or cool the air that circulates throughout the building.
Steve: What about the, it's kind of interesting overall shape?
DeFusco: Yeah, it's almost like a cathedral nave, like a modernist blend of cathedral nave and Connecticut barn, if you will, and all of the wood is from sustainably managed forests. Half of the wood paneling used inside comes from Yale‚ÄìMyers Forest in northern Connecticut 15,000 [board feet] and its Red Oak trim; and these glue-laminated timbers are Douglas fir, and the exterior of the building uses sandstone which was picked to...
Steve: Blend in with campus.
DeFusco: Oh yes, Yale's buildings.
Steve: I know from my personal experience, I've only been in the building for a couple of hours, but I did find some interesting things in your bathroom.
Steve: I have never seen the toggle, you know, the two-way toilet flushing.
DeFusco: Yes, there are a lot of European-type features here.
Steve: The two-way toilet flusher is such a simple thing, you know, you flush it, you go up for liquid waste and down for solid waste and you get much more of a water flow for when you're pushing it down for the solid waste, and so it's an easy way to save a couple of gallons every time you use it as opposed to, you know, single-mode flushes that just treat everything the same.
DeFusco: Sure and they are also waterless urinals in the men's room, and what's significant about the south courtyard and soon-to-be north courtyard is that these courtyards were created or designed to create community. So, for the first time in 100 years, when you walk through the arch down at Osborne Memorial laboratories, you're actually coming to something. The whole plan is to come to something where you wanna be. You want to be here. You want to hang out here and you want to study, you want to ...
Steve: Yeah, it's really an incredibly pleasant space. I mean, just all the wood.
Steve: I mean it's, obviously this is the forestry science building, so you know it's a great touch, but it really makes it
someplace where you just want to sit and do your stuff [in] this big common room we're in.
DeFusco: Well, it is supposed to build social capital. It's supposed to encourage people to congregate and to hang out and to socialize and to study and to create a destination whereas before this building was built, it was a patchwork of asphalt parking lots and nondescript areas and asphalt pathways. And so now this is a place where people want to come and stay, and I think that was one of the major goals of the design of this building. So courtyards are almost as significant as the building itself. And another very unique feature of this building, too, is that there is exposed concrete walls and ceiling. The actual structure of the building is made from concrete and the concrete retains heat in the winter and coolness in the summer. And there is an air plenum underneath the floors and air actually comes out of the floor through diffusers which minimizes energy use because you are not forcing air down through the ceiling, and so you need, you know, smaller fans and that sort of thing. And the air rises up and it hits the concrete and it either cools or warms, and then it's circulated out through individual orifices through the system. But this whole design here [is] actually kind of significant from a standpoint of airflow because it, kind of, uses a stack effect and it rises and then it comes down and it goes through these openings right here.
Steve: Yeah, we are in the middle of this, you know, as you said it's like a kind of cathedral ceiling; it's a big open room where we are standing right next to basically a hole in the floor. I mean, there are a couple of wooden walls
and with glass on either of the short sides but it's really a hole in the floor that's [there] to keep the air circulation going.
DeFusco: And lighting, too, is significant because the walls are glass; because in the lighting system itself, it responds to the ambient light outside. So you could be in your office and your lights would automatically dim if there is plenty of light coming in from outside or brighten if there wasn't, so it's automatic in [a] way that minimizes energy use, and it also creates a pleasant atmosphere to be in.
Steve: There's a lot of natural light streaming in here today.
DeFusco: Right, and the air that goes out of the building, we capture the heat of air going out the building and it's then transferred to incoming fresh air, and that minimizes the need to heat the building. Also during the summer, water is sprayed on incoming fresh air to cool, using evaporative techniques, and that will cool the air by as much as 18 degrees. And the air handling units are called [Minerva] air handling units and they are actually German air handling units, and they don't have any technicians in the US, but they monitor the systems from Europe and they can adjust them accordingly, too.
Steve: Somewhere in Germany there's [a] computer screen that's showing what's going on in this building.
DeFusco: Right. Now they can monitor this whole system online.
Steve: For more on Kroon Hall and to see some nice photos go to www.environment.yale.edu/kroon.
Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: For the first time researchers have found fragments of an asteroid that was tracked as it entered the atmosphere.
Story number 2: The top Internet submission in a NASA contest to name a new wing of the international space station is Colbert, thanks to ballet stuffing by Stephen Colbert and his minions.
Story number 3 : Researchers are working on ways to charge your portable devices with your normal body movements.
And story number 4: Charles Simonyi, who led the effort to create Microsoft Word publicly, apologized for the program's strange glitches, especially its tendency to suddenly change the font and type size of entire paragraphs.
Story 1 is true. Almost 300 meteorite fragments have been found in Sudan that originated as a small asteroid that hit us last October. It's a big deal because we can now match chemical composition to orbit an appearance in the sky, all without doing a pricey mission to mine an asteroid and bring back some of it. For more, check out the March 25th story on our Web site titled "Rock Science: First Meteorites Recovered on Earth from an Asteroid Tracked in Space".
Story 2 is true. Colbert is the top submission as a name for the new space station wing. But NASA says it may override the public and go with Serenity, perhaps due to an earlier allegiance to Frank Costanza. Early reports are that NASA may name one of the station's commodes for Colbert.
And story 3 is true. Normal body movements or even just your heart beat or a breath could soon be charging your iPhone. That's according to research presented on March 26th at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. The researchers say that zinc oxide nanowires generate an electric current when they are stressed in any way. So just wearing them as you walk or even breath would move them enough to generate electrical currents that could charge your portable devices.
All of which means that story 4, about Charles Simonyi apologizing for Word's weirdness is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. But what is true is that Simonyi took off for his second visit to the international space station, where he may very well use the Colbert.
That's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out www.SciAm.com for the latest science news and our In-Depth Report on the robots among us and the Scientific American Mind article on how humor makes you friendlier and sexier. For Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Yale astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski talks about Galaxy Zoo, a distributed computing project in which laypeople can help researchers characterize galaxies. And we tour Kroon Hall, the new green home of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.galaxyzoo.org; www.environment.yale.edu/kroon