I have been having an out of this world experience this week. Well, two really, but one was caused by a nasty dose of flu which came out of nowhere, out of a clear blue sky like an alien spaceship, infecting me, experimentally, with some germ that has never been known on Earth before. Or perhaps it was just man flu. Anyway, while I was laid low by this vicious virus I came across one of those internet projects that make you have some vestige of hope in a world which otherwise seems full of suicide bombers and murderers and celebrity news about Charlie Sheen. It’s called “Galaxy Zoo” and 250,000 people have so far taken part, helping to classify the millions of images of galaxies from the Hubble space telescope. You don’t need any qualifications, just a computer and a pair of eyes, and an ability to recognise unusual patterns (which is why it can’t be done by computer). It becomes, I warn you, completely addictive.
A galaxy, like our own Milky Way Galaxy is a collection of stars held together in a cluster by gravity. Millions, billions of stars (our own galaxy has some 200 billion stars), in each galaxy, and there are millions, probably billions of galaxies in the universe. The Hubble has already taken images of millions of galaxies, everything ranging for the simple elliptical clusters to the beautiful swirls of the spiral galaxies, and many weird and wonderful ones in between. The classification job, which is immense, will help us to understand more about the numbers of different types of galaxy and their evolution over the last 13 billion years or so, and there is always the possibility of finding something completely new (many galaxies the volunteers work on haven’t been seen by human eyes before), like a cloud of mysterious blue gas discovered by one volunteer, which is still the object of scientific examination.
I think this is one of those cooperative ventures by unpaid volunteers, like so many community activities, which give the lie to those jaundiced views of human nature that nothing is worth doing unless it makes money, no one will do anything except for money, and people will never cooperate in this dog-eat-dog super competitive world. And yet, unpaid volunteers everywhere, doing things that transcend everyday life.
I also think this is one of those ventures that should be compulsory for all new elected politicians, part of the “getting to know the parliament” induction process they go through. Partly for that sense that cooperative work is still possible in Australia (and indeed world wide) and it is a good feeling to take part in it. Partly because you are undertaking a process in which you are looking at images obtained by the most astonishing piece of human technology, a symbol of what we can do when we are on our best behaviour, and what we can do when our scientists and engineers are allowed to work on projects that don’t directly make a lot of money. But mainly because seeing, for the first time, a cluster of 200 billion stars billions of light years from here, and then another, and then another, gives an astonishing sense of the size of the universe and our tiny place in it.
And that might, just might, give politicians a sense of perspective and a sense of humility and a sense that we had better learn to cooperate, because it is a big lonely universe outside our little planet. Not much evidence of those qualities in recent times in the zoo of the national parliament.