Astronomy Web Site Wins Science SPORE Award

Growing up in Hungary, Alex Szalay was considered seriously cool. Often a winner of math and science competitions, the young Szalay got to travel to Budapest on a regular basis and to sit in on lectures given by future Nobel Prize-winners. He and his peers considered his early inclusion in the scientific community a great opportunity and an honor.

As one of the creators of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) SkyServer database, Szalay is providing students and astronomy enthusiasts with that same kind of excitement, the thrill of “getting engaged in real research, problem-solving, and discovery.” The massive database and associated Web site portal allows users to visually explore and research almost the entire visible night sky without having to wait for access to a giant telescope.


Alexander Szalay [John Patzer, 2008]

Alexander Szalay
[John Patzer, 2008]



Because of its enormous contribution to astronomy education, the SDSS SkyServer has been selected to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).

The prize was developed to single out the best online materials available to science educators. The acronym SPORE refers to a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in adverse conditions, into something new—and to the idea that these winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about the SDSS SkyServer was published on 27 August.

“We’re trying to advance science education,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “This competition will provide much-needed recognition for innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each Web site will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed.”

Szalay, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, came by his own affinity for science quite naturally. He was raised in a university town, the son of two physicists. “I was living inside a physics lab,” he says of his childhood. He loved math and at 16, he started doing theoretical physics. During college, he learned some computing, a skill that would serve him well in his work with the SDSS.

“We had to build a machine that worked,” Szalay says, referring to the organization of the SDSS data, which represents a three-dimensional map of the one million brightest galaxies and quasars, collected through visual images from a 2.5-meter telescope. Not only was the amount of data enormous, but a system was wanted to allow the public to interact with it.

Luckily, Szalay says he had a brilliant computer scientist, the late Jim Gray, as his collaborator. Together, in an arrangement Szalay refers to as a “cowboy adventure,” the two devised a system that would allow users to come to the data, do their analysis, and basically bring back only their results. Downloading the data onto individual systems was out of the question.

“This is what cloud computing is about,” says Szalay, “and we saw it 10 years ago.

“It has changed how we do astronomy.”

The traditional method of conducting astronomical research, Szalay says, was to put together a problem to be investigated and to wait for the use of a telescope. The process of getting the data could take a year—if the night sky was clear when the telescope was available.

Now, professional astronomers, amateurs, and students can simply go to the data, and “jump into doing the science with it.”

“This is astronomy 2.0,” Szalay says.

Providing greatly expanded research opportunities for professional astronomers, SkyServer has exploded access to the real science of astronomy. Now, even amateurs and students generate actual scientific discoveries.


Watch Jordan Raddick talk about his award with AAAS’s Natasha Pinol.

[Video © Science/AAAS]

“This Web site was chosen as an outstanding example of ‘citizen science,’” says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. “The projects on the Web site allow students to re-create major discoveries from the history of astronomy and to classify stellar spectra on their own, without direct access to a telescope. SDSS shows that you don’t have to be trained in astronomy to make scientific discoveries—you only need an inquisitive mind and some free time.”

Not surprisingly, the Web site has become hugely popular, with 793 million hits registered. Teachers and their classes had logged about 50,000 hours by the end of 2006. Those hours were spent on the specialized lectures and exercises developed for the site, and that usage is estimated to have reached 100,000 hours by now. The site’s classroom-directed curriculum is the product of close collaboration between the site’s writer, Jordan Raddick, and teachers from all over the country. The site includes games for elementary school kids and more direct involvement with the data for students as young as sixth-graders.

Although the Web site is extremely well-known in the astronomy and education communities, Szalay is keen to make scientists in other fields aware of it. He thinks winning the SPORE award and having an essay about the site in Science will further that goal.

“Scientists in other fields may be facing similar challenges,” he says. “There are a lot of useful interactions we could have.”

Visit the Sloan Digital Sky Survey SkyServer.

Learn more about the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).

Watch an informal conversation with Jordan Raddick.