While researching the article on the newly discovered gravity-lens galaxies I posted yesterday, I found an ingenious website called Galaxy Zoo that allows you to assist in classifying a millions galaxies by viewing photographs and sorting them into one of several possible categories. You register with a username and password, take a short tutorial to prove you know your ass from your elbow, and are then able to view unlimited pictures of galaxies and designate them as either elliptical or spiral galaxies, and — if they’re spirals — further, which direction they appear to be rotating: clockwise or counterclockwise.
The purpose of the project is not only to sort the individual galaxies, but to accumulate data to determine whether there is more of one sort of galaxy than the other, or whether spiral galaxies prefer to rotate one way over the other, with the ultimate goal of discovering whether one galaxy type forms from the other, or if they’re related to one another at all.
It might sound tedious, but not only does the site allow you to participate in a legitimate and important scientific endeavor, it also lets you view thousands of photographs of actual galaxies taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Many of the pictures are blurry or a little boring, but some (like the one to the right) are breathtakingly beautiful. And remember that even the blurry, boring ones are images of galaxies thousands or millions of light-years away, each smudge of light consisting of hundreds of billions of stars and probably an uncountable number of planets. I wonder how many other intelligent beings are looking up at the sky from their worlds, conducting their own surveys of the universe. Maybe one of them will stumble on an image of our galaxy and sort us into the proper pile with a hundred thousand others.