COUNTING AND CLASSIFYING MILLIONS OF GALAXIES. The Galaxy Zoo website (here) uses the efforts of thousands of nonscientists to make classifications of galaxies to select galaxies for further study. It started in July 2007, with a data set made up of a million galaxies imaged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. People were asked to make rough classifications of galaxies. Within 24 hours of launch they were receiving almost 70,000 classifications an hour. More than 50 million (!) classifications were received by the project during its first year, contributed by more than 150,000 people.

This page describes in more detail the first task for participants in 2007. Volunteers were asked to classify the galaxies into ellipticals, mergers and spirals and — if the galaxy was spiral — to record the direction of the arms. Multiple classifications were useful because they gave information on the accuracy of the classifications of a particular galaxy.

The linked page describes some of the uses of the millions of classifications, such as the comparison of galaxies now and in the past, to provide understanding of what factors influence their growth, “whether through mergers, active black holes or simply star formation.”

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MORE SUCCESSES OF NONSCIENTISTS HELPING WITH LABOR-INTENSIVE SCIENCE. I have posted several times in the last six years, including here, on the use of “Foldit”, an online videogame with over 50,000 registered users, to bring the efforts of large numbers of nonscientists to work on problems relating to modeling protein molecules. This article by Josh Hrala on the sciencealert website (link via Instapundit), describes yet another success for Foldit users. They recently beat trained scientists in a competition to see who could complete an accurate model of the protein YPL067C by interpreting electron-density maps. Hrala quotes a participant: “We think this is a big deal because interpreting an electron-density map can be a labour-intensive, error-prone process – and we show that crowd-sourced Foldit players can do it as well as, or better than, professionally trained crystallographers,”

It is thought that the gamers ‘experience in working together gave them an an advantage.

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AN ARGUMENT FOR DIGGING UP EVERY MOUND IN BRITAIN. On the Pinterest board I found this article which says:
“The discovery at Sutton Hoo was made in 1939 when the landowner Edith Pretty asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of several mounds on her property. Beneath the mound was the imprint of a 27m (88ft) ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures.”

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A PINTEREST BOARD FOR BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY. I stumbled on this Pinterest board for BBC articles about archaeology where the article about Durrington Walls can be found.

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THE MYSTERIES OF THE TIMBERS AT DURRINGTON WALLS. It is a comfort that there is no immediate explanation for what was found at Durrington Walls. Perhaps something can be learned from the search for explanations.

One of the archaeologists is quoted in the BBC article: “…there are two enormous pits for timber posts. They have got ramps at the sides to lower posts into….The top was then filled in with chalk rubble and then the giant henge bank was raised over the top.” The archaeologist says: “it was thought the giant timber monument was was put up immediately after a settlement on the site, that belonged to the builders of Stonehenge, went out of use.”

The archaeologist says: “For some strange reason they took the timbers out and put up the enormous bank and ditch that we see today.”

So there are three mysteries—why were the timbers erected, why were they taken down and covered over. and why was the timber monument put down soon after the settlement on the site was abandoned?

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AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISAPPOINTMENT AT DURRINGTON WALLS. I posted here in September of 2015 about a “superhenge”. I wrote: “…this article by Brittany Jones Cooper reports on the announcement on September 7 of what is being called “Superhenge”, located about two miles from Stonehenge, along the lower edge of Durrington Walls. The stones are buried about three feet under the earth and were detected by using ground penetrating radar. Superhenge has about five times the size of Stonehenge and has 90 stones to Stonehenge’s 15.”

Less than a year later, in August, 2016, it has been reported here on the BBC website that: “A 4,500-year-old monument experts thought was “another Stonehenge” is now understood to have not contained any standing stones at all. Archaeologists digging at Durrington Walls—about two miles from Stonehenge—said they now believed the Neolithic site was surrounded by timber posts.”

Not only has the excitement of finding a major new henge been lost, but the failure to find any standing stone punctures the confidence archaeologists had in their new tool, ground penetrating radar.

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MORE GROSS SCIENCE—ANCIENT POOP. Here is an array of Gross Science episodes. This episode entitled “What Can You Learn From Ancient Poop?” features research which shows that a contemporary of Dante died from drinking poisoned tea. This episode entitled “Are There Dead Wasps In Figs?” caused considerable consternation for those in our household who treasure figs.

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“GROSS SCIENCE”—THE PROS AND CONS OF INCEST (COMMENT). In his comment on genetic diversity in endangered species, Nick sent me this link to an episode of “Gross Science” from NOVA, a PBS series put together by Anna Rothschild. This episode deals with incest in different species.

Inbreeding qualifies as “gross” because of our taboo against incest. The genetic danger of inbreeding for pandas and other endangered species is that there is an increased possibility that each parent may carry the same recessive gene. If the offspring inherits both recessive genes, the recessive traits may be harmful. There is a qualification. The recessive trait may be helpful. And genes inherited from parents who come from the same environment may well be well suited to that environment.

The video concludes with species such as some fig wasps in which, as with many wasp, bee and ant species, the male inherits only one set of genes—from the mother. A male can’t have two recessive genes, and harmful genes don’t get passed on.

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DIVERSITY AND THE SURVIVAL OF THE PANDA SPECIES (COMMENT). Diversity is a big problem for zookeepers trying to encourage endangered species. Nick commented on yesterday’s post on pandas about a conversation he had with our friend Tanner, who has been a zookeeper, on the diversity problem in another species, the Amur leopard.

A problem for maintaining diversity for pandas in the wild is that while protection of pandas has increased steadily so that there are now 67 protected panda reserves in China, the number of pandas in a colony can be quite small. This article entitled “Survival of the cutest” in the Economist (September 10) says that the wild panda population of some 1864 pandas is “fragmented into 33 subgroups, 18 of which have just ten or fewer animals….Moreover, these groups are isolated from one another. This limits their gene pool and makes them disease-prone.”

The algorithm for choosing panda mates that I mentioned in yesterday’s post is used to create more diversity in pandas bred in zoos.

The Economist article is upbeat about efforts to save the panda.The first paragraph in the article announces the good news that an environmental group has recently changed the rating for pandas from “’endangered’ (meaning with a high risk of extinction in the wild) to ‘vulnerable’ (ie, to becoming endangered).”

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PEOPLE IN PANDA SUITS SOAKED IN PANDA URINE. I grew up with my mother’s stories of the Brookfield Zoo. I posted on some of them here, including her story about trying to find a veterinarian for a panda on April Fools Day. This was in the late 1930’s when the first giant panda to arrive in the United States was at the Brookfield Zoo. A great deal about the care of pandas has been learned in the last 70 years, and this article by Jennifer S. Holland on the National Geographic website tells about how zookeepers in China are now preparing pandas born in a zoo to live in the wild with other pandas.

The Chinese zookeepers have learned a great deal about breeding pandas, to the point of developing an algorithm for choosing mates. They had 38 panda births in 2015. The next step is to learn how to return pandas to the wild. Those to be released have to be independent, wary, and capable of finding food unaided. The pandas to be returned are “kept relatively sheltered” from humans, and “keepers wear full-body panda costumes scented with panda urine so that young bears don’t get used to humans.” Five pandas have been trained and released since 2006. Three of them have survived.

Ami Vitale took some wonderful photographs of pandas and of people dressed as pandas which accompany the article.

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