The story of Hanny’s Voorwerp for The Huffington Post

I was asked recently to (re)write my story for The Huffington Post. They translated it to German, which looks like this: “Wie ich in meinem Wohnzimmer berühmt wurde”. Below you can read the English version.

It was an evening in the summer break, August 2007. I was sitting at my desk and – as a teacher – I probably still had some other things to do, but I was reading Brian May’s website instead. I’m a big admirer of his work with Queen, but it was the amazing pictures of the universe he showed that sparked my interest that evening. He explained how he’d found those on a website called ‘Galaxy Zoo’: a new citizen science project. Little did I know how this bit of information was about to change my life forever.

Astronomers, quickly nicknamed ‘Zookeepers’, had asked the public in July of that same year to log onto their site, view some of those pretty galaxies and to classify them – after a short and easy tutorial – by clicking a button. They were studying galaxy formation. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope automatically took the pictures and nobody had seen them before. A million of those is just too much for a few astronomers and there are no computer programmes that can do the job as accurately as the human brain. You don’t need to have an astronomers brain by the way, just a curious mind and some spare time.

Helping scientists, having fun and learning a lot at the same time? I immediately signed up. After my first week of classifying or so, I got a nice spiral galaxy on my screen, which I quickly marked as an anti-clockwise one, not knowing at that time it is called ‘IC 2497’. After you decided, you instantly got another image (and you always want to see what’s next!) But then I thought: “Wait, what was that?” And I clicked the back button. I noticed a sort of ‘smudge’ underneath the galaxy, which didn’t match to any of the examples given. For a moment I was wondering what to do. It never occurred to me it was something special, but I was curious.

So I uploaded the picture onto the forum, which was created to deal with the thousands of questions the Zookeepers were receiving. With that, I simply wrote: “What’s the blue stuff below?” Maybe one of the volunteers who had been an amateur astronomer for longer than a week would be able to explain. I also e-mailed it to Chris Lintott, the astronomer who initiated this search. Alas, nobody had an answer. Except for the one reply saying it was probably just a camera defect. A weird one though.

People started referring to the strange blue blob as ‘Hanny’s Voorwerp’. An English citizen scientist who knew I was Dutch, made up the name after he’d googled the Dutch word for ‘object’. It still amazes me that this nickname stuck.

A couple of months later, the keepers of the Zoo started looking into my Voorwerp and since then a lot happened. It turned out to be really interesting as it’s a light echo from activity in the centre of the neighbouring galaxy. As the discoverer I was invited to join the investigating team. So this girl-next-door suddenly co-authored papers and we eventually presented our results together on a press conference in Seattle. I also still travel the world to talk to the press, make an appearance on TV shows, give lectures about my thing in space and they even turned me into a comic book hero.

Together with Patrick Moore, Brian and Chris recently brought out ‘The Cosmic Tourist’, in which they mention Hanny’s Voorwerp too. Doesn’t that close the circle nicely?

Meanwhile the Zoo is still very much alive and kicking. It is now the Zooniverse, which is home to many citizen science projects. Astronomy related ones like Moon Zoo and Planet Hunters, but other sciences benefit from this format too. We’re investigating ecological systems on Snapshot Serengeti and you can help scientists from the world’s largest cancer research institution find cures for cancer on the Cell Slider project. New discoveries are made thanks to the help of over a million citizen scientists today and everyone can still be a part of it.

Hanny van Arkel - kopie

Hanny van Arkel
Lehrerin, Pionierin der Bürgerwissenschaft




Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *