You Don’t Need a PhD to Hunt for Black Holes

October 23, 2015 | Sarah Tse

The Radio Galaxy Zoo Project
Photo credit: The Radio Galaxy Zoo Project

An innovative citizen science project relies on amateur space enthusiasts to search for supermassive black holes.

Most of us don’t even know what black holes are, let alone what they look like. But if you think you need years of education and advanced degrees to track down these exotic celestial objects, think again.

The Radio Galaxy Zoo is a citizen science project that crowdsources the search for supermassive black holes and their host galaxies. Anyone with a middling interest in space can access the online platform to comb through millions of telescopic images and find the telltale radio jets emitted by supermassive black holes. These mysterious cosmic phenomena sit at the centers of galaxies, but, being so exceptionally black, they are hard to spot. Luckily for astronomers, supermassive black holes occasionally shoot out streams of stellar material that glow in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

SEE ALSO: Stephen Hawking Proposes New Theory to Resolve Mystery of Black Holes

Before they can begin hunting for black holes, the volunteers take a tutorial provided by the project that hones their recognition of those radio waves. The online website then presents the volunteers with telescope images taken in both the radio and infrared sections of the electromagnetic spectrum. The volunteer scientists can compare the two images to match the radio jets to their host galaxies, which pinpoints the supermassive black hole.

When the project first launched a year ago, the research team tested the same 100 images on groups of both citizen scientists and expert astronomers. The citizen scientists were just as capable at matching the images. In the past year, volunteer scientists have surveyed 1.2 million images, and they have already identified the galactic sources of 60,000 radio signals among those images. A single astronomer working 40 hours per week would probably take 50 years to complete the same amount of work, according to a statement released by the leaders of the project at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research.

With all the technological advances in the field of astrophysics, why not just delegate the work to a computer? Some of the black holes have such strange, unpredictable structures that computer algorithms don’t know what to do with them. Only a human brain can interpret the images and work out where the radio sources come from. It turns out, nothing compares to the processing power and flexibility of a computer that has undergone hundreds of thousands of years of research and development.

This crowdsourcing project demonstrates the incredible potential to use the internet for mass processing of data. In the past, amateur space enthusiasts were limited by their lack of access to telescopes and extensive schooling. Now that scientists can make their data accessible to everyone, both parties benefit: overworked astronomers get the results they need, and aspiring astronomers can participate in the thrill of advancing science. If you want to find some black holes for yourself, visit the Radio Galaxy Zoo!

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