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Hanny Van Arkel Armchair Astronomer

Hanny Van Arkel Armchair Astronomer

Armchair astronomer discovers unique 'cosmic ghost'

Hanny van Arkel was poring over photos of galaxies on the Internet last August when she stumbled across a strange object in the night sky: a bright, gaseous mass with a gaping hole in its middle.

"It looked a bit like an irregular galaxy, but I wasn't sure what it was," Van Arkel told CNN. So she posted a query on the Web site of the Galaxy Zoo project, which encourages members of the public to join in astronomy research online.

Van Arkel is a 25-year-old schoolteacher in Heerlen, The Netherlands, not an astrophysicist. But her startling find -- a mysterious and unique object some observers are calling a "cosmic ghost" -- has captivated astronomers and even caught the attention of the Hubble Space Telescope, which has agreed to take a closer look next year.

"This discovery really shows how citizen science has come of age in the Internet world," said Bill Keel, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Alabama and a Galaxy Zoo team member. "There was a time when I spoke pejoratively of armchair astronomers. And I've gotten up at a star party and publicly apologized for that."

Not so long ago, the term "amateur astronomer" conjured images of stargazers peering through backyard telescopes. But today's citizen astronomers are as likely to be analyzing reams of sophisticated data collected by observatories and posted on space-related Web sites.

Armchair observers like van Arkel increasingly are making significant contributions to science, said Steve Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, a group of 6,500 professionals. Amateurs have been invited to present papers at recent AAS conferences, "which wouldn't have happened years ago," he said.

A successful example of amateur-professional collaboration, the Galaxy Zoo project was launched last year by Yale University astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski and his colleague Chris Lintott at the University of Oxford in England.

The pair were looking for help in cataloging archived photographs of galaxies -- one million images -- taken by the robotic Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in remote southern New Mexico.

Knowing the human eye is sometimes more sensitive than a computer at picking out unusual patterns -- and that they didn't have time to do all the work themselves -- Schawinski and Lintott posted the images on the Galaxy Zoo Web site last summer.

The professors then invited amateur astronomers, with the help of a brief online tutorial, to classify the galaxies as spiral, elliptical or something else. Online galaxy-sorting might not sound as fun as, say, surfing YouTube, but it was an immediate hit.

"We were overwhelmed by the response. It completely melted the server," Schawinski told CNN. "People tell us it's addictive. Some of [the volunteers] are professional astronomers, but most of them are not. They're just regular people who got excited about the project."

During the last year, more than 150,000 armchair astronomers from all over the world volunteered their time, submitting more than 50 million classifications.

The public's collective wisdom -- the same principle that guides jury trials, or Wikipedia -- proved remarkably astute, Schawinski said. For example, if 33 of 36 volunteers thought a galaxy appeared elliptical, then astronomers could be confident the classification was correct, he said.

Van Arkel had been classifying photos on Galaxy Zoo for about a week when she came across the the image that quickly became known as "Hanny's Voorwerp," or Dutch for "object." The primary school teacher does not own a telescope -- "my [astronomy] background doesn't really go further than looking at the stars when walking outside in the evening," she said -- but when she posted her finding August 13 on the Galaxy Zoo forum, the astronomers who run the site began to investigate.

They soon realized van Arkel might have found a new class of astronomical object. The Galaxy Zoo team asked scientists working at telescopes around the world to take a look at the mysterious Voorwerp.

Their best guess: The Voorwerp is probably a cloud of hot gas punctured by a central hole some 16,000 light years across and illuminated by the "dying embers" of a nearby quasar, Schawinski said. Quasars are distant, highly luminous astronomical objects powered by black holes; scientists suspect light from the quasar still illuminates the Voorwerp even though the quasar itself burned out sometime in the past 100,000 years.

"It's this light echo that has been frozen in time for us to observe," said Lintott, the Oxford scientist. "It's rather like examining the scene of a crime where, although we can't see them, we know the culprit must be lurking somewhere nearby in the shadows."

Galaxy Zoo leaders are eagerly awaiting images from NASA's orbiting Hubble, which is scheduled to train its powerful instruments on the Voorwerp in 2009. In the meantime, van Arkel is enjoying the fuss over her contribution to astronomy.

"It's amazing to think that ... amateur volunteers can help by spotting things like this online," she said. "What excites me the most is that all of this leads to more interest in science."

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Kwame Kilpatrick

Kwame KilpatrickMayor Kwame Kilpatrick is in jail (finally) and the City of Detroit is in its most precarious state in decades. But who's the fool in this horrible production?

It's not the mayor, despite his serial misbehavior, his unbelievable audacity, his ridiculous clinging to power. At this point, it's us - Detroiters of all hue, economic station, political affiliation, block club and neighborhood. It's the people who live here, who do business here, who care about this place and depend on its health and vitality.

We are the fools, for letting this awful chapter in the city's 300-year history develop to this point. We are the fools, for not standing up en masse to escort Kilpatrick out of the Manoogian, and out of our public lives. We are the fools, for enduring the national and international, embarrassment time after time, while prattling idly about his right to a fair trial, the sanctity of his elected status and various other irrelevancies.

Kilpatrick has ruled us as Caesar did Rome. He has turned our fair city into a renegade's playground where his ego, rather than the rule of law, reigns supreme. Kilpatrick's spectacular fibbing and manipulations were first exposed on Jan. 24 of this year, and in the 196 days since, he has done nothing but prove his unworthiness to lead. He has cast himself, against all odds, as the victim. He has played into the racial polarization of this region as a defense for his own misdeeds, most famously in a madman's tirade at the end of his State of the City address.

As a criminal defendant, he has defied the courts' restrictions on him time and again, while publicly dismissing the case against him as trivial, hate-inspired, or otherwise illegitimate. He has assaulted a sheriff's deputy who was not even on Kilpatrick's property, or serving papers on the mayor.
In any other American city - hell, in most banana republics - half of that would be enough to inspire near rebellion in an effort to change leadership.

But what have we heard from the other political leadership in Detroit? True, some have spoken out, but most have sat on their hands, taking precautions not to offend the mayor or his allies. Where is the outrage from the state's congressional delegation, which should have spoken with one voice about the outrages Kilpatrick has perpetrated? The state delegation in Lansing has also not acted collectively, though some of its more notable members (such as state senators Tupac Hunter and Buzz Thomas) have said their piece.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm began a process to consider removing the mayor, and lately, at least, has accelerated her timetable. But shouldn't her sense of urgency have been heightened well before the mayor's continued transgressions? And now, with misdeeds on the record in the form of his bond violations, doesn't she have enough power to act without the contemplative, judicial-like process she established before?

The business community, too, has largely taken a pass on leadership, or even self-respect, with regard to the Kilpatrick problem. Last week, Roger Penske, the racing magnate who heads the Downtown Detroit Partnership, even suggested there was no role for business leaders to play here. The judicial process should be allowed to work itself out, he said.

What a docile and sheepish cop-out, from a man whose business reputation is for tough negotiating and uncompromising discipline. At a time when Detroit needs leaders - those who see tough situations and do the right thing anyway - the city is stuck with cowards too tied to the mayor's power, or too afraid to cross him, to speak out. Even if Kilpatrick goes, we need to reconsider whether some of the private interests who seem so integral to the city's future truly have our interests at heart.

The city's religious and civic leadership has also been woefully absent. Why has the local NAACP, a chapter so rich in history and strong in tradition, been all but silent about the crisis in leadership in a city whose residents are overwhelmingly African American? Wendell Anthony, who heads the branch, has said little or nothing, and certainly hasn't pushed for Kilpatrick to leave. He has stuck to the "let the law work this out," line, which falsely conflates Kilpatrick's right to a fair trial with his position as mayor. And it allies the organization with the mayor's interests, above and beyond the interests of the hundreds of thousands of others who are being victimized by his leadership.

Why has New Detroit, the organization founded after the 1967 riots to help heal racial fissures in this region, been so silent about the racial overtones that have been drowning out some of the substantive issues in this scandal?

New Detroit has not only been silent about Kilpatrick's misuse of race, it has not even had anything to say about the role race may actually be playing in some of the response to this scandal. After seven months, how can that make any sense?

Fools, we all are. And Kwame Kilpatrick has made us that way.
Going forward, if we don't stiffen our spines and assert strongly that this is unacceptable, that the mayor must go and the city must move on, it will say nothing about Kwame Kilpatrick - and everything about us.

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