First citizen science platform celebrates 100 project milestone


First citizen science platform celebrates 100 project milestone


Almost 10 years to the day since it started, The Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most popular people-powered research platform will launch its 100th project; Galaxy Nurseries.


The online platform runs on support from volunteers, of which there are now hundreds of thousands worldwide. These volunteers act as armchair scientists, helping the team with their online research from the comfort of their own homes.

The latest project, ‘Galaxy Nurseries’, invites these volunteers to support the team with the classification of galaxy spectra – emerging, baby galaxies that are giving birth to new stars.

Researchers from the Department of Astrophysics at Oxford University originally launched the Zooniverse with a project called ‘Galaxy Zoo’ in 2007. The project asked the public to help the team to classify images of fully formed galaxies, based on their shape. A direct contrast to the web platform’s roots in old stars, ‘Galaxy Nurseries’ focus on young, bright stars highlights how much the Zooniverse has evolved in ten years.

The general public’s involvement in ‘Galaxy Zoo’ enabled the team to process data much faster than anticipated, and proved to be so useful that people-power became a vital ingredient for a number of research streams.

Although it began as an astronomy platform, the Zooniverse now features a number of international projects, covering fields ranging from the humanities and biology, to the hugely popular ecology initiative, Penguin Watch.

Professor Chris Lintott, Founder of Zooniverse and Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, said: ‘When Galaxy Zoo launched, no-one involved could have dreamt it would last a decade or lead to this. I find it astounding and inspiring that hundreds of thousands of people, from all over the world, are willing to give us a little of their time to help understand the world and the universe. I’m looking forward to the next 100 projects – and I bet it won’t take another ten years.’

Led by Claudia Scarlata at the University of Minnesota, ‘Galaxy Nurseries’ aims to discover thousands of new baby galaxies in the distant universe, using the light they emitted when the universe was only half of its current age.

As well as supporting academic research streams, the Zooniverse citizen science approach to research helps the general public and young children, to better engage with and understand the role that science plays in society. This gives those who may have always wanted to become a scientist, but not taken that path, a chance to contribute to the field.

Dr Grant Miller, Zooniverse communications lead, said: ‘When I started work at the Zooniverse there were only twenty projects. To see the platform grow from that point to supporting one hundred projects in under four years has been truly amazing! Being able to help all of those researchers, and work with so many dedicated volunteers, is an absolute privilege.

‘It is somewhat fitting that our 100th project is looking for baby galaxies, considering that the Zooniverse has grown out of one small galaxy project ten years ago, to now supporting hundreds of researchers worldwide.’

We are all living inside a gigantic simulation, experiencing a virtual world that we mistakenly think is real. It all feels too real to be a simulation. The weight of the cup in my hand, the rich aroma of the coffee it contains, the sounds all around us.

Humans are locked into a virtual world that they accept unquestioningly as real.  Our entire Universe might be real yet still a kind of lab experiment. The idea is that our Universe was created by some super-intelligence, much as biologists breed colonies of micro-organisms.

There is nothing in principle that rules out the possibility of manufacturing a universe in an artificial Big Bang, filled with real matter and energy. Nor would it destroy the universe in which it was made. The new universe would create its own bubble of space-time, separate from that in which it was hatched. This bubble would quickly pinch off from the parent universe and lose contact with it.

Our Universe might have been born in some super-beings’ equivalent of a test tube, but it is just as physically real as if it had been born naturally. We are entirely simulated beings. We could be nothing more than strings of information manipulated in some gigantic computer, like the characters in a video game. Even our brains are simulated, and are responding to simulated sensory inputs.

We carry out computer simulations not just in games but in research. Scientists try to simulate aspects of the world at levels ranging from the subatomic to entire societies or galaxies, even whole universes. For example, computer simulations of animals may tell us how they develop complex behaviors like flocking and swarming. Other simulations help us understand how planets, stars and galaxies form.

We can also simulate human societies using rather simple agents that make choices according to certain rules. These give us insights into how cooperation appears, how cities evolve, how road traffic and economies function, and much else. These simulations are getting ever more complex as computer power expands. Already, some simulations of human behavior try to build in rough descriptions of cognition. Researchers envisage a time, not far away, when these agents’ decision-making will not come from simple if-then rules. Instead, they will give the agents simplified models of the brain and see how they respond.

Who is to say that before long we will not be able to create computational agents – virtual beings – that show signs of consciousness? Advances in understanding and mapping the brain, as well as the vast computational resources promised by quantum computing, make this more likely by the day. It makes sense for any conscious beings like ourselves to assume that we are actually in such a simulation, and not in the one world from which the virtual realities are run. The probability is just so much greater.

There are already good reasons to think we are inside a simulation. One is the fact that our Universe looks designed. The constants of nature, such as the strengths of the fundamental forces, have values that look fine-tuned to make life possible. Even small alterations would mean that atoms were no longer stable, or that stars could not form.

One possible answer invokes the multiverse. Maybe there is a plethora of universes, all created in Big Bang-type events and all with different laws of physics. By chance, some of them would be fine-tuned for life – and if we were not in such a hospitable universe, we would not ask the fine-tuning question because we would not exist.

However, parallel universes are a pretty speculative idea. So it is at least conceivable that our Universe is instead a simulation whose parameters have been fine-tuned to give interesting results, like stars, galaxies and people.

Quantum mechanics, the theory of the very small, has thrown up all sorts of odd things. For instance, both matter and energy seem to be granular. What’s more, there are limits to the resolution with which we can observe the Universe, and if we try to study anything smaller, things just look fuzzy. These perplexing features of quantum physics are just what we would expect in a simulation. They are like the pixellation of a screen when you look too closely.

Reality might be nothing but mathematics. This is just what we would expect if the laws of physics were based on a computational algorithm. It is likely to be profoundly difficult if not impossible to find strong evidence that we are in a simulation. Unless the simulation was really rather error-strewn, it will be hard to design a test for which the results could not be explained in some other way.

We might never know, simply because our minds would not be up to the task. After all, you design your agents in a simulation to function within the rules of the game, not to subvert them. This might be a box we cannot think outside of. The Universe can be regarded as a giant quantum computer. If one looks at the guts of the Universe – the structure of matter at its smallest scale – then those guts consist of nothing more than bits undergoing local, digital operations.

We had all better go out and do interesting things with our lives, just in case our simulators get bored! But nobody goes around telling himself that the people he sees around him, and his friends and family, are just computer constructs created by streams of data entering the computational nodes that encode his own consciousness.

Plato wondered if what we perceive as reality is like the shadows projected onto the walls of a cave. Immanuel Kant asserted that, while there might be something in itself that underlies the appearances we perceive, we can never know it. René Descartes accepted, in his famous one-liner I think therefore I am, that the capacity to think is the only meaningful criterion of existence we can attest.

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