THE BLOG

How Galaxy Zoo Conquered Space

11/14/2012 02:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

In this blog I'm going to show you how science can tap into the power of the crowd to analyze the mountains of data that our exponentially powered instruments are generating.

When I was a grad student at MIT, I had a chance to become friends with the Viking Mission's chief scientist, Dr. Gerald Soffen. Viking was the first Mars lander looking for signs of life on Mars. One of the shocking facts that Dr. Soffen shared with me was that over the decade after Viking 1 and 2 landed on Mars, NASA had only the capacity to look at and analyze just 1 percent of the data from those two missions. One percent!

It hit me back then that what we needed was a way for the data to be made available to the thousands, or even millions, of amateur scientists who would "kill" to have access to that data, to analyze it and perhaps to contribute to the science.

25 years later, that's exactly what Galaxy Zoo did.

I spoke recently with Kevin Schawinski, an astrophysicist who co-founded Galaxy Zoo when he was a graduate student at Oxford.

One of his projects was identifying elliptical galaxies, football-shaped transitional galaxies that are a sort of missing link in understanding galaxy formation.

It used to be that, in astronomy, a small team of people could look at photos of a few thousand galaxies and classify and catalog them relatively easily. But now, with a new generation of robotic telescopes scanning the skies constantly and producing millions of images, that's become next to impossible.

Schawinski himself had spent a week classifying 50,000 galaxies. "We'd extracted an awful lot of interesting science from this," he told me. But when he wanted to dig deeper and classify the million galaxies for which he and his colleagues had images, he knew it was an impossible task for one person.

"We hit on the idea of putting the images on a website and finding people, perhaps two or three amateur astronomers who'd be willing to help us," he explained. "Doing one of those back-of-the-envelope calculations, we figured it would take five years for the million galaxies to be classified."

So he and his colleagues decided to go ahead. They assembled a website, Galaxy Zoo, that they opened to the public.

Surprise: "Within hours of the site going live, we were classifying every hour more galaxies than I'd done in a whole week," he said. "And then more people and more people signed up." By the time Galaxy Zoo was turned off with the completion of the project a year and a half later, it had attracted 250,000 registered users.

What's more, the results were astonishing. The original goal of Galaxy Zoo was to have every one of the million galaxies looked at just once. It ended up that every galaxy had been classified over 70 times, Schawinski said.

"What you're really tapping into is the wisdom of crowds," he told me. "You end up with 70 independent measures of each galaxy, and you can do real science with it."

And out of Galaxy Zoo has grown Zooniverse, which we'll talk about in future posts. Why was this, and subsequent projects like it, such a success?

Schawinski and his colleagues asked the same thing. They worked with social scientists and sent out questionnaires and discovered that people's No. 1 motivation for participating in a project such as Galaxy Zoo was that they want to contribute to actual science. "They want to do something that's useful," explained Schawinski.

People want to contribute. "We'd hit an unmet need," Schawinski told me. "People wanted to do this."

That's a key to understanding the appeal of crowdsourcing: we want to feel that we contribute and that we make a difference.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about some of the things to be aware of when beginning a project like Galaxy Zoo.

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. If you enjoyed this post and would like your comments to make it into my book, head here to share 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 post, sign up for my newsletter here.