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Put on your Mae West, but try to avoid being a Chadband

Q.  With astrophysicist Chris Lintott, let us praise those citizen scientists who answered the call to join Galaxy Zoo in 2007.  What vital function did they perform?

A.  In the mid-2000s, Lintott needed to sort through images of hundreds of thousands of galaxies to gather samples for his envisioned study, but such a task would take many months or more for one person to do, and computers weren’t up to the challenge, says Erin Wayman in “Science News” magazine, drawing on Lintott’s book “The Crowd and the Cosmos.”  Lintott and his colleagues turned to the public for help, asking volunteers to classify galaxies by shape — spiral or elliptical.  On the first day of launching Galaxy Zoo, the website was so overwhelmed that the server hosting the images crashed.  Soon, though, more than 70,000 image classifications were coming in every hour.  Following this success, Zooniverse was born, letting anyone participate in real science:  digitizing handwritten records from research ships, identifying animals caught on camera, using telescope data to find signs of exoplanets.

 Now, more than a decade later, even with “smarter” computers, Lintott believes that citizen scientists can still make contributions, especially noticing things rare or unusual. For example, in 2007, Hanny van Arkel of the Netherlands found a strange blob in an image and implored scientists to investigate.  “Dubbed Hanny’s Voorwerp (Dutch for ‘object’), the blob is now known to be a large gas cloud still glowing after being hit by a jet of radiation from a nearby galaxy’s black hole,” a likely indication that a now-quiet galaxy was active not too long ago.

 Q.  What’s in a person’s name?  More than a unique individual if that person had a word coined after them — an “eponym.”  Do you know what these eponyms mean: “Mae West,” “Adonic,” “Chadband,” “vandal” and “nimrodize”?

A.  Buxom beauty Mae West — actress, singer and playwright — has an inflatable life jacket named after her, perhaps “from the apparent resemblance of an inflated vest to her large bust,” says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  If a man is called “Adonic,” he should feel flattered because Adonis was a very handsome youth in Greek mythology.  And credit Charles Dickens for creating Rev. Mr. Chadband, a greedy preacher, in his 1853 novel “Bleak House”; hence, a chadband is an oily, hypocritical person.

  Then, “vandal” is coined after Vandals, a Germanic tribe that overran Gaul, Spain and northern Africa, and in 455 C.E. sacked Rome.  Commonly used today, a vandal is “one who willfully damages another’s property.”  Finally, “to behave like a tyrant” is to “nimrodize,” named after Nimrod, the Biblical Noah’s great-grandson, a hunter and evil tyrannical king. As Christopher Brooke wrote in his 1872 poem: “And for a crowne who would not Nimrodize.” 

Q.  These woody, perennial members of the plant kingdom, with their capacity to reduce atmospheric carbon, were vital to the evolution of life on Earth.  Much is known about trees, but are you familiar with fossil forests, trees as historians and ghost trees?

A.  The earliest forest in the fossil record is roughly 385 million years old, with primitive, fernlike clades of trees as well as other species once thought to have evolved millions of years later, says Gemma Tarlach in “Discover” magazine.  Trees are also great historians: “Even minor fluctuations in temperature, precipitation and other factors change cell size and density in tree rings as they form, allowing researchers to reconstruct ancient climate patterns.” 

 As to ghost trees, researchers studying these dead, upright tree trunks clustered in tidal zones in the Pacific Northwest realized they were similar to those in Alaska created when a massive earthquake caused coastal areas to sink several feet and flood with tree-killing saltwater.  Based on analysis of Washington and Oregon ghost forests, it is now believed that the area, considered at low-to-moderate earthquake risk, may actually produce megathrust earthquakes — the most powerful kind — about every 400 to 600 years.  (It’s been 320 years since the last one, which was big enough to send a tsunami to Japan.)”

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