In the lead up to the announcement of Australia’s most prestigious science honours, the AM Eureka Prizes team sat down with some of this year's science stars.
Who: The AstroQuest Team, International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research
Finalist: Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science
What: AstroQuest is an online citizen science initiative that helps astronomers better understand how distant galaxies grow and evolve. Volunteers are motivated by game features like quests and rewards to check images that have been processed by sophisticated computer algorithms, their feedback helping research teams study galaxies and improve machine learning. These answers were provided by Lisa Evans, Project Officer of AstroQuest.
Citizen science is a relatively new but fast-growing area of science, why do you think it is important?
Astronomy has actually been using citizen scientists for thousands of years. As well as the wealth of Indigenous Australian and other First Nations astronomical knowledge, astronomy was practised extensively by private citizens from ancient China and India, the Middle East and Europe. One citizen science project that took place over a century ago involved women known as the Harvard Computers, including Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who classified thousands of stars on glass plates and made huge contributions to astronomy in the process.
Today, astronomy generates such a huge amount of data that it isn’t possible for astronomers to process it all, so they need volunteers to help in many ways. Citizen science is becoming widely recognised as a very effective and rewarding way to engage the public directly in science, and in astronomy its importance is only likely to increase.
I sometimes still find galaxy images that I haven’t seen before that stop me in my tracks.
What’s a typical day like for the AstroQuest project team?
Questions often come through from citizen scientists which need input from the astronomy team, so a typical day can involve checking on whether two galaxies are merging, why a galaxy looks weirdly deformed, or whether a pattern is an amazing new discovery or just some noise.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt working on this project?
It is amazing to see how much time and effort citizen scientists put into projects like AstroQuest – the thousands of people who’ve spent anything from a few minutes to many hours inspecting galaxies for us. It is also incredible to look at the thousands of galaxies and see the incredible structure and beauty of the Universe. I sometimes still find galaxy images that I hadn’t seen before that stop me in my tracks.
The Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science is presented by Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources