If you were to play a recording of Sarah Palin to the Milky Way, how many galaxies would spin to the right and how many to the left? Would there be a red shift or a blue, or would the universe simply carry on, as ignorant as before?
These are the kinds of questions that might be asked by the Galaxy Zoo project, though since it's serious science, the actual questions are rather more serious than that (bah!). The core concept is that supporters in their thousands are being asked to look at images of galaxies, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope, and categorize them in very simple terms (simpler than trying to figure out American politics, that's for sure). Are they spirals or disks, for example, or star- or cigar-shaped?
You see, it has long been known that a large number of small computers in a distributed network may achieve faster and more accurate results collectively than big, single computers can. This is the basis for the famous SETI volunteer project, charged with the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. Well, amazingly, the same holds true for humans. A "distributed community" of hundreds of thousands of humans may return more accurate results, and faster, than any computer network.
And that's where Galaxy Zoo comes in. To take part, all you need do is devote some time to looking at images of galaxies and other astronomical objects, provided by the Hubble telescope. Not a bad way to spend time, as it is. And then, you'll be asked to categorize each, into a small set of preselected categories. It's just a mouse click, nothing more complex or challenging than that, and you can go just as fast or slow as you please.
The results so far have apparently been outstanding, returning a mass of data unobtainable in other ways, discovering new objects and even being used to validate fundamental theories of physics. It's a measure of the importance of the project that physics books could be rewritten as a result of all this mouse clicking.
It's an enticing project with the chance to be a part of something far greater, in a community of the like-minded. And although it was the first project of its kind, it has since been joined by similar projects evaluating all sorts of astronomical data, at a group of different but connected websites (see below). The whole thing is co-ordinated by the Citizen Science Alliance, which in turn is funded by scientific and astronomic organizations, NASA, and a mainly-American group of international universities.
Take a look - just browsing Hubble images is a pleasure, and you'll be making a contribution to science, something that few of us would otherwise be able to do.
Sources and other sites of interest:
http://www.zooniverse.org (All related projects)