Galaxy Zoo : Amateur stargazers map a 'lopsided' universe

A legion of amateur stargazers has posed a profound challenge to cosmological theories: our universe appears to be lopsided.

Professional astronomers had asked the public for assistance in mapping the night sky, and were stunned when they received millions of hits on their website within a few days, enabling them to classify galaxies in the universe at rocket speed.

The response has been so great that within a couple of months the Galaxy Zoo project has completed a preliminary analysis of the heavens which would normally take years.

The survey has revealed that the collections of millions of stars, dust, gas and planets in galaxies prefer to rotate anticlockwise from the viewpoint of an observer on Earth.

Traditionally astronomers have believed that galaxies would spin either clockwise or anti-clockwise in equal proportion. But these observations would seem to suggest that either a mysterious force is acting on them or that the universe is in some way lopsided.

More than 100,000 people from around the world have logged on to the Galaxy Zoo website to take part in the project run from Oxford University's physics department to study images of galaxies taken for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a robot telescope based in New Mexico that is producing a digital map of the universe.

The amateurs are the first humans to study the brightest million galaxies and have been asked to classify them into two types, spirals, which are circular pinwheels, like our own galaxy the Milky Way, and rugby ball shaped galaxies which are known as elliptical galaxies.

Because of their complex shape, the human eye is much better than computers at sorting the galaxies, said Dr Chris Lintott, a member of the Oxford team.

As a double check, the same image was shown to several users and the scientists have been struck by how good the amateurs are at classifying 30 million images.

"We've proved that random people are as good as professional astronomers," Dr Lintott said.

More remarkable, the find suggests that one small click for an amateur stargazer could be one giant leap for physics. "Preliminary results suggest that spiral galaxies seem to point clockwise," he said, adding that that meant they rotate anticlockwise from our perspective. If this new finding turns out to hold true, "you will have to throw away the standard model of cosmology."

Sir Patrick Moore, an enthusiastic supporter, said: "Non-professionals have always been deeply involved in studying the sky and they now have yet another opportunity to make themselves really useful. Moreover, their help is now of immense value so do join up."

The Galaxy Zoo team involves the University of Oxford, the University of Portsmouth and Johns Hopkins University, and Fingerprint Digital Media of Belfast.

"It will be great to have all the galaxies classified; it's as fundamental as knowing if a human is male or female," said Prof Bob Nichol, of the University of Portsmouth.

Source : Telegraph UK

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