in the picturesthe story behindwhat is it

18 Nov. 2008 | “And here’s how it all started!…” (Glenn Frey, 1994)


It was an evening in the summer holidays, August 2007. I was sitting at my desk and I probably still had some other things to do, but I was reading on Brian May’s website instead. He showed some amazing pictures of the universe and explained how he’d found those on a website called ‘Galaxy Zoo’.


Astronomers, quickly nicknamed ‘zookeepers’, asked the public in July of that same year to log into their site, view some of those pretty galaxies and to classify them – after a short and easy tutorial – by clicking a button. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey automatically took the pictures and nobody else had seen them before. A million of those is just a lot for a few astronomers and there are no computers that can do the job like a human brain can. You don’t need to have an astronomers brain by the way, just a curious mind and some spare time is enough.


So, helping science, 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’ve decided, you immediately get another image. But then I thought: “Wait, what was that?” And I clicked the back button. I noticed it had a nice neighbour, although I wasn’t sure it was a galaxy, so maybe ‘the smudge under it’ is a better way of explaining what I saw. I read on the site about irregular galaxies and this ‘smudge’ made me think of one of those, although it was much bluer and it had a remarkable form. For a moment I was wondering what to do, as I didn’t think it was something very special, but neither did it look like any of the examples I saw before.


Luckily, there is also a forum online for the volunteers of Galaxy Zoo. Here the zooites can ask questions about the pictures, the site, the science in general, or chat away about, well – anything. I wasn’t very keen on registering on a forum, as I came across some before and thought it wasn’t ‘my cup of tea’. This place appears to be one of a kind though. You’ll find a lot of different people from different places all over the world, sharing the same interest in astronomy, on different levels, who mostly are genuine. What would happen if you put a bunch of those people in a real life cafe? Well, we had a lot of fun and I can say that I met some of my best friends there.


It was the place to go to with my question. I uploaded the picture I just saw on my screen and posted a message saying: “What’s the blue stuff below? – Anyone?” Since I was only around for a week, I didn’t even know how to properly post a picture, but I got a lot of nice responses from my fellow zoo ‘addicts’ anyway. Not that any of them had an answer and neither did the members of the team, when I also e-mailed them. I did get a reply back from one of the moderators on the forum, just saying it was “interesting”. Later he told me he thought it was just an artefact, but he felt obliged to answer me properly.


It was there and then people started referring to the mysterious blue cloud as ‘Hanny’s Voorwerp’. A member who knew I was Dutch, made up that name. After he found out what the Dutch for ‘object’ was, he sent me: “Hanny, here’s your Voorwerp.” In January 2008 the keepers of the zoo started investigating my Voorwerp and since then a lot happened. They kept all of us updated through the Galaxy Zoo blog, where they posted every new finding of their search. There were also some e-mails between them and me and although they were very busy, I got an answer to all my questions. There even appears to be an answer to my original question. The blue stuff turns out to be a gas cloud, which is very hot, but probably hasn’t got any stars. They call it a ‘light echo’. Although I was always interested in science like this, I never did anything with it other than looking up at the stars as soon as I came outside late in the dark evening. So I never thought I’d understand an explanation like that, but I learned a lot the past few months.


I also never expected I’d see something in a picture that turns out to be so interesting that newspapers say I “discovered” something. That radio and TV shows from all over the world would want to interview me. That the famous Hubble Space Telescope is going to look at it and that I’d be giving lectures about all of this. It is great fun though! It’s nice to experience how all of that works. It’s nice to see your name on a scientific paper as a co-author. And it’s great to travel around and meet interesting people. And to write about that on a website.


If you want to read the updates about what other observations showed and what’s happening around Hanny’s Voorwerp, keep an eye on my blog, where the category ‘discoveries’ makes it easy for you to find the news about it.