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Highlights from ZooCon 2015

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Grant Miller starting off ZooCon 2015 – Image credit: Pete Jalowiczor

Today we have a guest post from Andy Martin, one of  our dedicated Planet Four Talk moderators, who attended ZooCon 2015 in Oxford, UK on July 11th.  In a previous life as a chartered chemist, Andy tested the air at the House of Commons, assessed the quality of food, water and nuclear fuel testing, and worked on standards for breathalysers and dairy farm milking parlours. He now runs a campsite in Cornwall where there are lots more stars to stargaze at in the night sky than there were inside the M25. The photos accompanying the blog come from Planet Four volunteer Pete Jalowiczor. Pete has a background in Astrophysics; he was one of Prof. David Hughes’ Postgraduate students at the University of Sheffield, UK in the early ’90s researching Halley’s comet. He currently works in education assisting students in Further and Higher Education with learning difficulties.

And so to Oxford for Zoocon 2015, ably led by our master of ceremonies Grant Miller. The days events are available to view (the video of the talks can be found here) at so I’ll stick to a few highlights rather than provide minutes on the meeting.

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Off to Oxford Astrophysics Image credit: Pete Jalowiczor

 First up Becky Smethurst gave an up date on Snapshot Supernova which ran earlier this year in association with the BBC and Stargazing Live.  The project had been a great success and have caught 5 supernovas in the act of going bang. Whilst the supernovas were the stuff of “proper big science” Becky was just as pleased with the results of the group photo experiment to image Orion  This saw images of Orion taken by the public combined to provide a stunning image of the constellation, which you can see here (NB I found this with some difficulty, the beeb websites just loop when you start looking)

Ali Swanson next, all about Snapshot Serengeti which, amongst the delegates at least, seems to be a bit of a Marmite group, but everyone seems to have had a go, love it or hate it. The project has produced a paper and all the data collected to date has been made freely available to all, that’s around 1.2 million photos.

Victoria Van Hyning gave an interesting presentation on the humanities led projects which mainly center on the transcription of historical documents. You may already be aware of the War Diaries and sea logs projects but did you know you could help to transcribe ancient documents written in Greek (no ability to actually understand Grek required) via the Ancient Lives project.  Another project that I wasn’t aware of, but will be on the lust when I get some time, is Science Gossip. This involves a variety of scientific documents like the lab books and journals of working scientists.

Alissa Bans and Disk Detectives are identifying stars with disks around them where planets may be forming; YSO’s or Young Stellar Objects.  So far around 700 disk candidates have been identified some around close to home stars such as Vega.

An update on Disk Detective. Image credit: Pete Jalowiczor

An update on Disk Detective. Image credit: Pete Jalowiczor

Tom Hart has a cool job in more ways than one, he looks after Penguin Watch which monitors penguin populations using both satellite imaging and trail cameras similar to those used for Snapshot Serengeti.  Because of the extreme weather conditions and remoteness of the locations the team are working on cameras which will be able to stay in the field for up to 10 years without being touched.  The project has already seen some success in getting fishing restrictions imposed to protect penguin populations.

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Penguins! Image credit: Pete Jalowiczor

Zooniverse Past and Future ran over what’s been happening in the Zooniverse and what may yet come to pass.  There has been a paper published discussing ideas for citizen science in astronomy and the recent Earthquakes in Nepal saw the power of the Zooniverse used to identify areas where aid was needed but not being delivered, literally because the places affected were not on the map.

And finally back to Grant with what I think is the most exciting development for the Zooniverse yet.  The new platform enables anyone to set up and manage Zooniverse project of their very own. To show how easy this was Grant set up a project to identify attendees at ZooCon15 from photographs and measure the size of their smile. This he did in a couple of hours whilst the talks were going on.  To find out more log on to the Zooniverse and look for the Build a project’ button top right.All I need now is a huge pile of data to analyse.

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Image credit: Pete Jalowiczor

And thence to the pub to renew aquantancies and make friends anew.  Sadly the mild ran out early on but those who dined found their meals accompanied by designer new potatoes, purple all the way through, which tasted……just like potatoes.

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Planet Four representing at ZooCon 2015 Left to right: Andy Martin, Pete T, and Pete Jalowiczor (Thanks to Pete Jalowiczor for the photo)

Mark your calendars – 2 months until ZooCon 2015

Today officially marks two months until ZooCon 2015 hosted at the University of Oxford by the UK Zooniverse team.  It’s a day dedicated to volunteers and inspired by Zooniverse projects.

There will be some science team members (physically and virtually) from many of the Zooniverse projects talking about the recent progress and science results coming from your clicks. Some of the core Zooniverse team will be in attendance to give you updates on the latest news in the Zooniverse and where it is heading in the future.

After the afternoon discussions, attendees can later head over to a gathering at a local pub for a social evening. If talks aren’t your thing you can skip them and sign up just for the attending the pub event starting at 5pm, where you can meet  other Zooniverse volunteers and get to know some of the dedicated people who build and run the Zooniverse.

To give you an idea of what ZooCon is like check out this guest post  by our Talk  moderator Andy Martin (wassock), who attended ZooCon13. Also you can find the video of the ZooCon13 and ZooCon 14 Planet Four talks here and here. We don’t know if Planet four will be one of the projects featured (since there’s 30 projects to choose from!), but either way there will be lots of citizen science and Zooniverse happenings to talk about on July 11th.

ZooCon is set for Saturday,  July 11, 2015 from 13:00 to 21:00 (BST).There isn’t a published schedule of talks yet, but whether you’re interested in out of this world Zooniverse projects or ones closer to home, they’d love to have you join them in Oxford, UK. Tickets are free, but there is limited seating, so register if you want to attend. Reserve your spot today here.

Planet Four at ZooCon 2014

Image Credit: Grant Miller

Image Credit: Grant Miller

The Zooniverse UK HQ hosted ZooCon 2014 this past Saturday at Oxford University with an afternoon inspired by Zooniverse projects. There was representation from science team members (physically and virtually) from many of the projects as well as some of the core Zooniverse team in attendance.

I was invited to give a talk at this year’s ZooCon virtually. I gave an update on Planet Four, and I talked about the progress the science team has been making towards the project’s first paper. You can find the recorded video below:

If you were at ZooCon or just watched the video and have questions, I’ve started a thread on Talk for further discussion.

There is also going to be a second ZooCon called ZooCon Portsmouth hosted at the University of Portsmouth. It will take place on September 13th. There will be some talks as well as an editathon to improve coverage of Citizen Science on Wikipedia. They have a schedule set for the day that you can check out. More details here (Like the Oxford event, tickets are free, but there is limited space at both the lecture hall and the pub) so do register.

Planet Four Teacher Workshop Talk

As part of the workshop on Citizen Science in Astronomy  that I helped co-organize at my research institute  (the Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Academia Sinica – ASIAA) earlier this month in Taipei, Taiwan, there was a teacher workshop. The teacher workshop was organized by Lauren Huang (ASIAA), Mei-Yin Chou (ASIAA), Stuart Lynn (Adler Planetarium/Zooniverse), Kelly Borden (Adler Planetarium/Zooniverse), and myself.

Teachers in Taiwan came to ASIAA on a Sunday to hear about citizen science and how they could use it in the classroom.  I gave a talk to introduce the traditional character Chinese translation of Planet Four and talk about the science behind Planet Four. The talk (which is in English)  is recorded so I thought I’d share:

The Planet 4 Invasion – ZooCon 13 Talk

A few months ago, the Zooniverse hosted ZooCon 13  at the Zooniverse UK HQ in Oxford. I was invited to give a talk virtually about the status of Planet Four and the science behind it. Our own Talk moderator Andy Martin was in attendance and wrote a summary post about the day. My talk is online and you can find it below (the first 30-45 seconds is cut off but the rest of it is all there).

ZooCon 13

Today we have a guest post from Andy Martin, one of  our dedicated Planet Four Talk moderators, who attended ZooCon13 in Oxford, UK this past weekend.  In a previous life as a chartered chemist, Andy tested the air at the House of Commons, assessed the quality of food, water and nuclear fuel testing, and worked on standards for breathalysers and dairy farm milking parlours. He now runs a campsite in Cornwall where there are lots more stars to stargaze at in the night sky than there were inside the M25.

And so to Oxford. Walking to the venue was a little like being outside Ikea on a Sunday afternoon. The streets were littered with parents come to transport their student offspring home for the summer, only to find they’d accumulated too much stuff to fit in the car – in one case three cars!

I’m not sure that anyone counted heads but there were around 40 delegates present with large contingents from Planet Hunters and Old Weather (some of who brought cakes). It has been a while since I was audience side of the lectern and I quickly found that I now have an ocular choice, see the presentation screen or read what I’m writing. I chose the former and thus my limitations with the latter takes the blame for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies in what follows.

The afternoon started with presentation by Aprajita Verma on the Space Warps project which looks for examples of gravitational lensing. In the simple version of this you have a star a long way off with another star in between. Instead of being obscured by the intervening star the light from the distant one gets bent around it to give two (or more) images around the middle star. In practice they are mainly looking at galaxies and the images are somewhat more complicated than the simple model would suggest. All very interesting, but why, you might ask and this is where all gets very technical. In essence these objects allow an estimate of the mass of the lensing object to be made – its a way of weighing galaxies.

The project has been very successful, 2 million images in the first week, and has around 80000 participants around 40% of which remain active. As I said the things they are looking for are very rare but the image set contains a number of control images. When you get one of these and flag the feature, up pops a little “well done” window with some information about the type of lens you just found.

Karen Masters from the University of Portsmouth gave the next presentation, highlighting some of the scientific highlights of the Galaxy Zoo project so far. Galaxy Zoo has been running since 2007, there are 200 thousand participants and to date some 40 million images have been classified. Participants are asked to locate galaxies in the images they are presented with and decide which characteristic group they belong to.

Galaxy Zoo has seen a number of published papers and scientific discoveries perhaps most celebrated being a strange object discovered amongst the images on Galaxy Zoo by a lady called Hanny who I had the pleasure of talking to later in the pub. Photos were duly taken of my amazement when she showed me her Voorwerp.


The next presentation brought us back to Earth, Phil Brohan from the Met Office gave an insight into the Old Weather project. This involves the transcription of archived ships logs from a hundred or more years ago. The logs contain details of position, pressure, temperature, wind speed/direction, extent of sea ice and more, enabling a picture to be built up of weather systems in the past. Each log contains readings taken several times a day and the archive includes logs from more than a thousand ships. This picture of historic weather can be used to compare the weather today with the past and may help to answer the question “has the weather changed?”. As an example the recent ‘super storm’ Nemo which hit the North East USA had similar weather patterns to the great blizzard of 1880 which affected the same area.

As well as the weather data the ships logs also contain information of the voyages of the vessels concerned and details of the people on them. The logs are transcribed from start to finish by the same person enabling them to follow the story of the ship and its crew. The current task is to transcribe records from the US archive which contains 75 million pages, and work is underway to include more archives in the future.

Back then to the GalaxyZoo and Brook Simmons from Oxford University who gave a taste of what the future holds for the project. The next phase will look at images taken in the infrared which will enable images from further away, and thus older, to be looked at. Current images from the Hubble telescope are able to show objects back to around half the age of the universe, the new set of images will push that back to cover around 80% of the age of the universe.

There are plans to provide online tools to make it easier to examine and work with the data and to enable more collaboration between individuals.

Following a short tea/coffee/beer we regrouped to hear from Meg Schwamb via webcam from the USA. Meg gave an update on progress with Planet Four so far and gave a tantalising glimpse of some of the first results from the analysis of the data so far; Plotting of fan/blotch position onto the surface on a larger scale.


Left image: Volunteer marks overplotted. Red crosses are centers for blotches marked by Planet Four volunteers. Blue Circles are starting points of fans marked by Planet Four volunteers. Right image: Same as left but without volunteer classifications drawn

Meg mentioned the plans to look at the North in the future and discussed some of the differences that are observed between the two poles. She also showed part of this video of fan formation in the North:

Back to Earth again for the next item entitled “Only you can save planet Earth” and detailing the work of Solar Stormwatch. This project is concerned with looking at data from two cameras, one positioned slightly ahead of the earths orbit and one slightly behind which give a stereo image of the material ejected in solar mass ejections. The data from the cameras in can be combined to give an estimate of the direction and speed of the ejections and enable an early warning to be given of any activity which is headed our way. As you all probably know solar storms of this type can affect electronics, satellite communications and even the weather so any prior knowledge is of great use. The project looks at both historical data and live real time data. The historic data provides a much fuller data set than the live data but it is the patchy data in real time, which is being analysed round the clock by the people involved with the project, which can give an advanced warning of an incoming storm. Part of the presentation was a video from the cameras which shows the effect of a mass ejection on a comet, the tail is literally ripped away as the ejection front passes.

Chris Lintott was next up to talk about Planet Hunters. My notes kinda dry up here so either I was swept away by his oration or I didn’t understand a word of it – all I managed to write down was that the first exoplanet was only discovered in 1995 and the rate and number of subsequent discoveries have led to a recent estimate that there may be as many as 17 billion earth sized planets in our galaxy.

Lack of notes notwithstanding the success of the Planet Hunters project in identifying new candidates for exoplanets was clear from Chris’ presentation and particularly in finding things which have been overlooked by computers previously. Part of the current data are a set of images which are felt to contain the best bets for exoplanets – the message being if you want to find a planet now’s the time to go look.

Many of the systems found to date are somewhat strange by comparison to our home system with many systems containing 2, 3 or 4 suns, and planets of similar sizes to those in our solar system have been identified including a many which fall into the category of “Earth like”, at least so far as size goes.

The bad news is that the Kepler spacecraft which has provided much of the data for the project is now on its last legs. The good news is that another space mission is planned, there is still a huge amount of data from Kepler to be examined and other teams looking for exoplanets are keen to harness the power of the Zooniverse.

To finish the day Rob Simpson gave us a snapshot of what the future holds for the Zooniverse. He started by comparing the billions of hours spent watching TV with the 100 million hours that Wikipedia has taken to put together. The TV box filled the screen, Wikipedia just a small box by the side. By comparison Zooniverse currently attracts 2 months of effort every day, small by comparison but how much better do you all feel for it?

This image below shows the relative ‘size’ of the various Zooniverse projects over the past year. Rob has recently written a  post for the Zooniverse blog about how the human effort for the last year is divided by project and how he calculated it.

Image Credit: Rob Simpson/Zooniverse

Image Credit: Rob Simpson/Zooniverse

Rob mentioned Snapshot Serengeti   which provides BushCam images for you to identify the animals in view and what they are up to. This project has been very popular and from the quick visit I’ve made since returning from Oxford I can see how it could be almost as addictive as marking fans on Planet Four.

With the ‘formal’ part of ZooCon13 at an end we all retired to the nearest hostelry where, overlooked by a large oil painting of Patrick Moore, the workings of the universe were discussed long into the evening. My first ZooCon and hopefully not my last, everyone I met and talked to was friendly and keen to chat about all the workings of Zooniverse. Many have been coming to ZooCon for several years and it’s clear that many firm friendships have resulted. It was a pleasure to meet all of you and my thanks for the warm welcome to the fold you all gave me.

European Planetary Science Congress

Every fall the European Planetary Science Congress takes place to bring together planetary scientists from all over the world.  We discuss our latest research results, new data, our new theories and ideas, and new concepts for missions.

As a group we are committed to sharing our ideas with all of the world, not just our professional colleagues.  So there are always sessions on outreach and education.

This year I submitted an abstract to describe our Planet Four experience.  It has been overwhelmingly positive, and I think my colleagues will be intrigued by our approach.

Candy Hansen
Planet Four Principal Investigator

Planet Four at the Planetary Science Subcommittee Meeting

The Planetary Science Subcommittee NASA Advisory Council met at NASA Headquarters  earlier this month and was  given a status update on all of the research areas in planetary science related to NASA missions. The meeting and the role of the subcommittee is to gather input and report information from the scientific community and public relevant to current and future NASA missions and programs.

At the meeting Lisa May, Lead Program Executive for the Mars Exploration Program, presented on the status of the current and future Mars missions. In her presentation she talked about Planet Four and the work that you’ve all been doing marking the fans and blotches in the HiRES images or as she put it “tens of thousands citizens of planet Earth classify images of spring on Mars”  Below is the slide from her talk.


Image credit: NASA Mars Exploration Program – Lisa May,  Michael Meyer,Jim Green, Director

You can read through the entire Mars Exploration Program presentation here.