A Decade as a Citizen Scientist

Ten years ago, Galaxy Zoo was born. The online citizen science project Chris Lintott came up with to help him answer some questions about the Zooniverse. I mean universe*. By now it doesn’t need an introduction anymore, but the BBC News gave a nice summary today (which is fitting as they announced GZ’s birth ten years ago too). *Genuine mistake I kept in.

About nine years and 51 weeks ago, Brian May mentioned Galaxy Zoo on his website, which kind of changed my life forever. This story has been told many times before too. About nine years and 50 weeks ago, I found a Voorwerp in space which would later turn out to be a huge discovery.

I’m often asked how this discovery did effect the course of my life and in the back of my mind I always planned to pen an elaborate answer down. I never actually did, because almost everything that happened since I asked “hey what’s this then” is at least an indirect result of that question. This is probably true for many moments in anyone’s life, but I guess having been asked about that specific moment a lot, I’m often reminded of its butterfly effect.

I already wrote about a lot of the highlights during this decade in my online diary here, which makes it easier to give a random summary now of what it’s been like being a ‘famous discoverer’. As you probably know, Galaxy Zoo was a huge success and The Zooniverse is still growing strong. This is about what it was like for me personally though. I have a lot to be thankful for. If it wasn’t for this new-found astronomy hobby, I would probably never…

…Have visited England as often as I did. Summer holidays in Portsmouth with my then boyfriend (and GZ astronomer) Edd. The Isle of White. Staying over at new friends in London – Annie, Rona, Nigel… Cambridge. Oxford. Sleeping in a van and all those many lovely pubs.

…Have seen the many interesting places we visited. Jodrell Bank. The Royal Astronomical Society picnics in Greenwich. Patrick’s parties at Farthings in Selsey. Which were all great events mostly because of the lovely people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Jules, Jo, Nathanial.

…Have organised meet-ups in the Netherlands for my English pals. Geoff, Els, Graham (and played Twister with them in the middle of the night).

…Have travelled as much on my own in general. The flights, trains and ferries. Having been invited to Ireland, France and Seattle. Memories I treasure forever.

…Have taken part in so many conferences and science related events. Speaking, chairing, panels. Slovenia, Italy, Croatia, Berlin. And seeing the Queen at the inauguration at ASTRON.

…Have given as many lectures as I did. Schools, universities, science centres. Amsterdam, Utrecht. Belgium. Astrofest, Pecha Kucha and TEDx. And recently for my own teachers in Space Expo.

…Have talked to politicians as a citizen science expert. In the middle of the night even. And the media. The Sky at Night. National television. That Belgian game show. National Geographic. The German Playboy. BBC radio studios. The photo shoots (on a roof top!) and appearing in so many interesting books.

…Have met Brian properly. The We Will Rock You after party and meeting mutual friend Dirk, who then put me on stage in one of his shows. Helen Keen’s show. Learning English fast and starting the course to become an English teacher.

…Have my students be impressed about being on Wikipedia. And about being a comic book hero. I was impressed myself meeting many interesting people. Astronaut André Kuijpers. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. And eventually the father of my baby, who came to one of my talks.

…Have learned so much from all of this. About astronomy. About how science is done in general, which changed a lot of my previous views on the world in general too. And about how tea is best drunk with milk.

And indeed I would never have a rare object in the sky named after me. Which is cool, yes, but it doesn’t really change anything in your every-day life. Also, I would’ve been a fan of citizen science without the discovery, as I think it’s very important for scientists to work together with the public. Not only to do real science, but also to raise understanding of what ‘doing science’ really is.

Besides everything I’ve experienced and learned on this ride, the very best part is the people. As one dear friend-for-life, whom I met through Galaxy Zoo, told me today: “The science was great, but you were the best thing to come out of that project for me.” And that’s exactly how I feel. I couldn’t name everyone here, but if you’re reading this and we have met in the past ten years, then chances are I have thought of you as well.

Happy birthday Galaxy Zoo! Onwards and upwards!

This is me today.

Hello…, my dear friend,

My dear friend, who I used to talk to daily or weekly. Those who I used to keep in touch with online (because there’s a body of water between us). Those friendly acquaintances. You, all of you, reading this. Thank you for the birthday wishes!

And sorry I have been out of touch. Some of you may not have noticed, some probably thought it’s because of the new life I’m leading and that’s partly true. I did became a mama, moved house and married my son’s daddy. But I’m also very sick.

At first I thought it was ‘just’ the impact of a complicated pregnancy, birth and the fact my beautiful son had (had!) reflux disease, which meant he would literally choke in his sleep if we didn’t keep him upright. Of course I was tired. Extremely tired.

But it didn’t get better when it should. Eventually it took a coincidental blood test for allergies to find out I have a chronic auto-immune disease, which means my life changed drastically forever (words my doctor used). I have celiac disease.

You may have heard of this before. I had. Turns out it’s very different for every patient though. In my case, the follow-up endoscopy showed I was at the worst stage without any of the typical symptoms! There are also differences in the way people (are advised to) handle the treatment, which in my case is going to be drastic. Knowing this could’ve been cancer in a few more years was sort of a cliché wake up call.

There, it’s out. I wasn’t sure about writing this. I was never sick! I don’t want to say it out loud, I don’t want (self)pity and just as much I’m also really not looking forward to hearing why you think it’s not that bad, even though you mean well. I feel rather uncomfortable being ‘weak’. I know I’m not, but I’m still in the stage of getting used to the diagnoses.

I did this though, because I feel bad about not being in touch without much of an explanation. And I simply don’t have the energy to explain it to all of you. I pretty much put everything on hold; I can’t study at the moment and I had to cancel lectures for which I had to travel far… And I forgot your birthdays.

I did think of you though. Lots. Even if we hadn’t been in touch much before I got sick; I thought of many of you reading this. I miss some of you loads and I appreciate all of you, especially for the simple ‘happy birthdays’ through social media. This year they gave me the feeling you really hadn’t forgotten about me altogether, even with me not being around.

The good news is, I will get better. I mean, I will have to do the strict diet for the rest of my life and I will never eat out again (which will make all the travelling I used to do a tad challenging). I’ve also been told it could take a couple more years before I have my energy back, which is as frustrating as it sounds. My head is bursting with plans, but I am focussing on getting better first. I trust most of you will still be there when I’m back.
Thank you, for everything.

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Memory-lane Monday: Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in London


Earlier this year I was invited to an amazing lecture by the first man to walk in space (with whom I incidentally share a birthday), Alexei Leonov. Yes, being a well-known amateur astronomer has its perks indeed. The event was to be held at the Science Museum in London and other guests included my pal Brian May and Stephen Hawking. Robin Rees would also be there, making sure people could order their copy of the book “Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space”. I was happy to come over for this!

The trip went smoothly. People are generally even nicer to you when you’re expecting a baby; they let me jump the queue at the airport and I was also allowed to drink the Innocent smoothie I had forgotten in my bag at the security check. The turbulence was a bit scary, but I had forgotten about that when I was on the DLR again, just smiling because I was here and it was sunny. I was early, so I had a snooze on the grass near Princes Diana’s Memorial Fountain, thinking that in a next life I wouldn’t mind being a squirrel in Hyde Park.

Anyway, the lecture was impressive! Alexei Leonov drew his story on a chalk board and while he was explaining the details of his space trip, I felt even more silly for not even being able to hold my cool in a roller coaster. Also impressive were the translating skills of the ladies live translating Russian to English and vice versa. My pal Graham Bowes wrote more about the event on another blog, so I’ll end this reminder of the day with a link to that. He is also responsible for most of the pictures, including the one of us escaping the crowd, while Phil was joking about me giving birth in the lift.

(I didn’t). It was another great trip and I’m a lucky girl. More pictures can be seen on my Flickr page.


Flashback Friday: Stargazing in the Achterhoek

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When I took part in this Achterhoek stargazing weekend last year, I already knew this was going to be an event in which I was going to take part annually. Even though I’m not a hard-core amateur astronomer, really. I mostly went along for the fun, the people, the walks, the music (I lalalalike it) and the chocolate Easter eggs were an added bonus. And of course, because Joep and I had assigned ourselves the task of dimming the lights on this camp site with garbage bags.

Unfortunately, the sky was only clear for about an hour or so, but we looked at the Sun during the day, tested telescopes and we did make the most of that one hour stargazing. As I don’t have my own telescope, I offered my help as secretary and writing down notes – exactly like they were uttered. (So my report had sentences in them like: “wow you can do a lot of things with just 8cm!”)

One of the guys had taken along his time machine (or some sort of telescope equipment of which I have no idea what it’s used for) and he needed to know how many cogs he had on this huge cogwheel. There were a lot, so I can see why he didn’t feel like just counting them. But I offered to do it, making a competition of it, which was like the citizen science assignment “guess how many beans in the pot”. The person who’d guess closest would win a hug from yours truly and with all the answers combined we could then calculate the average and see how well we did. Just for fun.

The answer was 631 by the way. Picture proof of these shenanigans can be seen on my flickr page. Thanks to all for being there and for sharing your pictures!

Throwback Thursday: CULTAVERDE 2015

As the title suggests (and as I mentioned before) I’m going to share a few things from this past year, which I haven’t been able to show earlier due to being too busy with life itself (and creating a new life). The first event I think I should mention in this online diary, is the annual school concert CULTAVERDE.

Amy and I doing “Sweet Goodbyes”

Although I had stopped teaching right after the auditions, I was determined to guide our artists until the final night of the show and it was as rewarding as the former two editions. We had many first year students this year and it was great to see their courage. And attitude: Noëlla blew us away with her ‘All About That Bass’ and Shania’s ‘The Climb’ had me teary-eyed.

“You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”

We also had dance acts (with surprising cool masks), our Singing Sisters took part again and we had a new wild duo: Silvana and Silvana. Our own ‘The Voice – Kids’ contestants sang ‘Everything Has Changed’ together and I also managed to get a few of my colleagues on stage to do ‘Hotel California’ – more or less spontaneously, which was a lot of fun.

The boss calling us back on stage.

At the end of the evening, my partner in organising-crime Bastiaan and I had a few ‘thankyous’ we needed to say. To all our colleagues for their support and also to all the lovely students who worked so hard; backstage as well. Sadly, our presenting duo was about to graduate, so we had to look for new talent. Fortunately, they both had their little brother and sister in school now and the talent runs in the family!

Our students thanking us!

So I was a very proud teacher again. We had a great time. The funniest moment for me was when we found a mother’s driver’s licence, which she had forgotten on a table ‘backstage’. As we announced on stage that the owner could ask for it back in the break, one of my students whispered to me: “That’s my mum! Now do you understand why I keep forgetting my books and stuff?!”

The amazing presenters!

And we thought that was that. We had organised the event and it had gone as planned. Our head teacher had thanked everyone for coming, but then the participating students took over to thank us for giving them this stage. They had planned it together all along, without us knowing; we got flowers and even a custom-made winning cup. A night to remember.