Hanny and the Voorwerp

By Phil Plait | September 3, 2010 6:58 am

hannyvoorwerpIn 2007, a young woman with no prior experience in astronomy made a discovery that led to dozens of astronomers using billions of dollars of equipment to figure out the solution to the mystery. The young woman, named Hanny, and the object — whimsically named the Voorwerp — wound up becoming a fantastic demonstration of how citizen science works, and how it can lead to a greater understanding of the Universe.

My friend Pamela Gay, an astronomer and educator, spearheaded an effort to get this story out to the folks who need it most: kids! She and her team created a comic book based on Hanny’s story, called "Hanny and the Mystery of the Voorwerp" – you can learn more about it at that link. The comic book (a panel is shown above) will be premiered at Dragon*Con this weekend, but you can pre-order a copy for $5. If you’re an educator, or are looking to get your kids interested in science, you should check it out.

It’s a cute story, but also an important one. You don’t need a big fancy degree or even years of experience to make a big discovery. Sometimes what you need is a bright, curious mind, and the desire to explore.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (25)

  1. Jack Mitcham

    For those who are curious, Voorwerp is Dutch, it roughly translates to “object.” One of the posters at Galaxy Zoo looked up the Dutch word when replying to a post to Hanny, who is Dutch.

    As you can see, the name stuck.

  2. Wouter Lievens

    Actually Voorwerp is “Thing” rather than “Object”, but now I think I’m nitpicking.

  3. Let’s just call it Dutch for “doohickey” or “thingamabob” , okay?

    And, surprisingly, my spellchecker knows “doohickey” and “thingamabob”. :-)

  4. dersk

    @Wouter: miereneuker. My favorite, abolute, bar none, Dutch word…

  5. “Voorwerp” indeed means “thing” rather than “object”. “Voorwerp” is usually used for objects you can physically handle. The Dutch for “object” is..”object”. But the difference is slight, the two words are almost synonymous. It is very funny to see the so evidently Dutch word used here, though :-p

  6. armillary

    So this literally is about the Thing from Outer Space…

  7. Michel

    Maybe worth a new series for Discovery: Phil Plait meets the Amateurs.
    Were you meet and talk to all those people with their love for what´s above us and who discovered something along the way.

    (added after Jamey´s response: all copyrights feas must be used to buy Gallileo telescopes for schools around the world. Settled.)

  8. Jamey

    @Michel – it’s do-able. You have the amateur telescope makers, astrophotographers, comet hunters, variable star observers, meteor counters, the new crowdsourcing computerized efforts like Galaxy Zoo, Supernova Zoo, and the one counting and classifying craters on Mars, and the distributed computing of the various BOINC/@Home projects… You could *EASILY* do at least a half-season series for use to drop in as filler, and probably there’s more I’m not thinking of, to stretch it out to a full season.

    And Phil – if you do decide to pitch it, and the Discovery Channel Lawyers try to hem and haw about it – drop a small asteroid on them and tell them it’s just an idea, and ideas can’t be copyrighted!

  9. Michel

    Tussen n and a little star to make it appropiate to be written on a website.

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    It’s a cute story, but also an important one. You don’t need a big fancy degree or even years of experience to make a big discovery. Sometimes what you need is a bright, curious mind, and the desire to explore.

    Very true. Most kids start off this way. Sadly most of them seem to lose that boundless curiousity and desire to explore somewhere along the way.

    Hanny & the Voorwerp – great story, great idea, hopefully a great comic. :-)

  11. Tessa

    You don’t need a big fancy degree or even years of experience to make a big discovery. Sometimes what you need is a bright, curious mind, and the desire to explore

    -So true! It’s refreshing to actually hear that from someone.

  12. Oli

    “You don’t need a big fancy degree or even years of experience to make a big discovery.”

    So everyone who got the degree wasted years of their life? That sucks.

  13. Why doesn’t anyone care about the fact that she has a blue cat?

  14. I’ll just wait for the motion picture to come out so I don’t have to read the book… Who’s going to play Hanny? Who’s going to play the Voorwerp?

  15. Malachi Constant

    Rockin’. I just pre-ordered a copy to give to my nieces.

  16. MadScientist

    What’s the fuss? Don’t people recognize a galactic Green Gummi Bear when they see one?

  17. Having just read the comic online I’m impressed: This is quite a way to communicate (rather complex) astrophysical ideas, with some astronomy politics thrown in. And the concluding words on page 34 are just great. Next: the movie …

  18. Jack Mitcham

    Ok, it means “thing” then, I was close. I’m not as cunning a linguist as you people.

  19. Buzz Parsec

    So is it the great green gob of science, or is it the great green gLob of science? The web site says “gob”, but the book (on page 11) says “glob”. Listen up people, we need to get these technical terms right!

    Seriously, this is way cool.

    I’m a little confuse about the geometry though. Is the current thinking that there’s a big cloud of gas surrounding the galaxy, and the quasar, when it was active was emitting two jets out of its poles, one more or less pointed towards us and the other in the opposite direction, but has since stopped? Then the jet pointed towards us faded from sight, but the jet pointed away from us, zapping the cloud, making the big hole in it, and making the gas surrounding the hole glow intensely, hasn’t faded yet because it is several hundred thousand lightyears farther away, and we’re still seeing it as it was “then” versus what it looks like “now”? Where “now” is 10 billion years ago and “then” is 10,000,100,000 years ago.

    (I had to invent the distance out of whole cloth. The book and accompanying materials say that the Voorwerp was spectroscopically determined to have the same red shift and thus be at the same distance as the neighboring galaxy, IC 2947, but I can’t find the actual red shif t or distance *anywhere*. Numbers, please! This is SCIENCE.)

  20. The redshift of IC 2947 is 0.042477 according to the NED database; this translates to a distance (all the different cosmological distance formulae deliver roughly the same result at such low redshifts) of about 570 million light years.

  21. Buzz Parsec

    Thanks, @Dan Fischer…

    So my numbers should be 570,000,000 years ago for “now”, and 570,100,000 years ago for “then”. I got the 100 thousand lightyears from the fact that the distance between the galaxy and the cloud seems to be about the same as the diameter of the galaxy (to an order of magnitude) and the Milky Way is about 100,000 lightyears in diameter. Clearly very rough numbers…

    Also, the quasar shut down sometime before 570,000,000 years ago but more recently than 570,100,000 years ago.

    When we look out into the universe, we are seeing objects at various distances and of various ages. Kind of like trying to piece together the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon by looking at a pile of rubble at the bottom of a landslide. (If you’ve ever been there, you may have noticed that there are literally hundreds if not thousand of landslides lining the canyon, along with hundreds of cinder cones. Oooh! Volcanoes!)

  22. Markle

    With all due respect to those with the Dutch names, Hanny herself says she meant ‘object’ 1:12 in

    Perhaps it’s a regional thing and in Heerlen Voorwerp maps better to object?

  23. Raskolnikov

    “Thing” in dutch is really “ding”. “Voorwerp” is “Object”. I’m surprised my fellow dutch locutors would say otherwise. Of course, speaking loosely, there is not a big difference between “thing” and “object”. But still, for this once I wanted to be nitpicking.

    None of that really matters for the astronomical object it designates anyway.

  24. For Buzz Parsec – the cloud isn’t illuminated by a jet as such, but by X-ray and UV radiation from teh (extant or extinct) quasar core. There is some evidence that the 5-billion-solar-mass hydrogen cloud lies on the far side of the galaxy, making the extra light-time delay up to 200,000 years. There is a one-sided radio jet (odd enough in a spiral galaxy) but not 2.

    I think a digit slipped in copying the NED redshift – IC 2497 is at z=0.0499, around 700 Mlyr.

    And thanks for all the kind words in the effectiveness of the comic – that’s what we aimed for! It was an extra freebie that the artists seriously improved my hair.

  25. Hello!

    Sorry my comment is a bit late, but I just read all of yours and they all made me smile! 😀 And very nice article – thanks!

    And yes, ‘voorwerp’ is usually used for smaller objects, but it’s not really *that* interesting that people with cameras want to hear, if you see what I mean. 😉



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