Friday, January 11, 2008

Return to the Lopsided Universe

Back in early December I wrote about the Galaxy Zoo project, in which millions of regular folks (including me) help astronomers classify the shapes of galaxies. Our effort yielded the profoundly surprising result that, as seen from our nothing-special galaxy in a nowhere-special corner of the cosmos, the universe seems to have more galaxies that spiral counter-clockwise than clockwise. By all rights, they should be 50-50; any other ratio is insanely inexplicable. At the time, I guessed it probably said less about the universe than those observing it. Maybe, when faced with a faint fuzzy image and asked to detect a structure, more people somehow perceive a counter-clockwise one. That would be weird, but a lot less weird than a crooked cosmos.

Turns out I got it about right. To figure out what was going on, the Galaxy Zoo people did something very simple and clever: they flopped a bunch of their galaxy photos into mirror images of themselves, shuffled them back into the deck, and let us classify them again. And we beefwitted classifiers still thought we were seeing more counter-clockwise spirals than clockwise, and in about the same proportion (52-48). This post explains the statistics in numbing detail, but the essense is that if there's something screwy in the human-universe interaction, it ain't the universe's fault.

Galaxy Zoo can't explain why the observational bias exists, just that it does. Still sounds like a pretty interesting question for some psychologist or neurologist to look into. But not an astronomer.


Xtreme English said...

on the website of the friends of loren eiseley (one of my favorite poet-scientists), it says this:

"Loren Eiseley likened the brain of a writer to 'an unseen artist's loft' in which 'pictures from the past' were stored and brought forth to be magnified or reduced in order to form a pattern. Many of the patterns he created in his work were associated with his experiences during his years growing up in his prairie state, Nebraska. The land, the people and the institutions left an ineradicable mark upon him and colored what he did."

so...think cowlicks and such. maybe we tend to see what we've always seen, whether that's what we're presently seeing or not.

Namowal said...

Perception is strange. It seems what we think we see (or what we expect to see) isn't always what's really there. This can be cool (magic tricks, animation, optical illusions) or confounding (objective observation.)

Brian Fies said...

Yep. Making connections and teasing patterns from chaos is something humans do best, but it's a double-edged sword. We're pretty easily fooled into finding false connections and patterns, too. We've all seen faces in wood grain, stacks of boulders, or TV static (or Virgin Marys in grilled cheese sandwiches). It's the difference between science and superstition (gee, it rained the last four times I wore green socks, so if I want it to rain again....).

Thanks for the thoughts.

Joseph Brudlos said...

I think it might also have something to do with the .jpg artifacting with some of the blurrier galaxies.