A Dutch schoolteacher with no previous interest in science has identified a new type of cosmic object, reports the BBC. The object is a green blob of gas that was once powered by a quasar now gone dim. Professional astronomers confirm that object is one of a kind.
In the last issue of symmetry, the cover story talked about contributions amateurs could make to science. Astronomical discoveries rate as one of the most common types of outsider contributions and this definitely fits the pattern.
The teacher, Hanny Van Arkel, said she had no previous interest in astronomy so the path she followed to get involved in this project is an interesting and instructive one. Van Arkel had an interest in music and, so, when Queen guitarist Brian May co-authored a popular astronomy book Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, she read it and her curiosity grew. That led to her joining the Galaxy Zoo project, through which she identified the mysterious green object which is being referred to as "Hanny's Voorwerp." (Voorwerp means object in Dutch.)
Interest in science can come through many paths, and a growing number of people in science outreach now recognize that they can have a lot of influence on people's engagement in science through seemingly tangential means. The great part of this story is how that serendipitous interest in astronomy for one person led to a significant contribution to science.