Not strictly an anthropological post, but one that highlights how in some cases, humans are still better at deciphering visual data than the powerful computers and pattern recognition applications that have been built and designed over recent years. Following in the steps of previous projects like stardust@home, Galaxy Zoo needs volunteers to log on to their site and help classify thousands of images of galaxies, many of which will never have been seen by human eyes as all the images were acquired by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey robotic telescope.

Computers users undergo a three-minute online tutorial and are then allocated a series of images and asked to decide whether each one shows a spiral or an elliptical galaxy. If it’s a spiral galaxy, they’re asked to decide which way it appears to be rotating. Kevin Schawinski, an astrophysicist at Oxford University, UK, is one of the team who devised the project.

“I classified about 50,000 galaxies myself in a week,” he said. “It was mind-numbing. It’s not just for fun,” he added. “The human brain is actually better than a computer at pattern recognition tasks like this. Whether you spend five minutes, fifteen minutes or five hours using the site, your contribution will be invaluable.”

And further comment from Dr. Chris Lintott, another member of the Galaxy Zoo Team…

“We hope that participants in Galaxy Zoo will not only contribute to science, but have a lot of fun along the way. One advantage is that you get to see parts of space that have never been seen before. These images were taken by a robotic telescope and processed automatically, so the odds are that when you log on, that first galaxy you see will be one that no human has seen before. It’s not often you get to see something unique.”

More surprising is another comment by cosmologist Kate Land, who suggests that laypersons are better equipped to make quick and objective judgments over galactic images, as many astronomers find it difficult not to ponder too deeply or become stressed when classifying images such as these. She also adds this final comment.

“Some people have argued that galaxies are rotating all in agreement with each other, not randomly as we’d expect. We want people to classify the galaxies according to which way they’re rotating and I’ll be able to go and see if there’s anything bizarre going on. If there are any patterns that we’re not expecting, It could really turn up some surprises.”

So if you feel like like logging on and teasing out those galactic details, head on over to Galaxy Zoo – personally I’m all for public participation in such projects, partly because it’s the public who funds most of this work, and also because it raises awareness of mankind’s bid to view and comprehend the vast Universe around us; ever since the dawn of mankind, our eyes have been busily scanning landscapes and their components, always wondering what lies over the next horizon. (TJ)

see also: Science Daily: Sloan Digital Sky Survey Finds Most Distant Object Ever Observed