Sim City

Anupreeta, Surhud and Phil

Simulations! They’re everywhere in Space Warps, sneaking into the images and popping up messages all over the place. They’ve sparked a fair bit of discussion in Talk – lots of people like them, some people find they get in the way, and we hear the same few questions a lot. In this post we have a go at answering them!

Q: Why have we put all these simulated lenses in the survey images?
A: The sims serve two purposes. The first one is training: since many volunteers in the Space Warps community may not have seen gravitational lensing in action before, the sims are there to help you become familiar with what to look for. They give you some first-hand experience in identifying gravitational lenses, and show you the common (and some uncommon) configurations of multiple images that gravitational lenses can form.

The second purpose is driven by the science. We would like to find more new examples of gravitational lens systems that are known to exist in nature, but are difficult to detect. And because they are difficult to detect, we expect to miss some of them. That’s OK (we’re only human!), but we’d at least like to understand which lenses we missed, and why! Some gravitational lenses could be missed for mundane reasons, such as lying close to the border of the image, for example. Other lenses which may have formed arcs could be missed if these arcs have very low brightness, or, because the lensed features are hidden in the light of the lensing galaxy, or if these lensed features are too red. Our aim is not to just discover lenses, but to be thorough and quantify what sort of lenses we might miss. How well we find the sims will tell us how many lenses we likely missed, and which ones.

Sims are made using real massive galaxies - which are clustered! Here the sim-making robot has placed two simulated lensed arc systems in the same field as a real gravitational lens...

Sims are made using real massive galaxies – which are clustered! Here the sim-making robot has placed two simulated lensed arc systems in the same field as a real gravitational lens…

Q: How did we make the simulated lens systems?
A: As our goal of making sims is to generate a reasonable training sample that is also fairly realistic, we use realistic models both for the background sources and foreground galaxies. These models have some key properties that are largely enough to describe the wide range of lens systems that we have seen so far in the Universe. The mass, distance and shape of the foreground galaxies, and the colors, sizes, brightness and distances of the background galaxies and quasars all play an important role. We use realistic values of these key properties (and their interdependence), as measured by other astronomers in surveys like the CFHTLS. For each sim, we select a massive object from the CFHTLS catalog, and ask, what would this object’s image look like if there was a source behind it being gravitationally lensed? It’s quite difficult to select massive objects (measuring mass is one of the reasons we want to find more lenses!), but we can make an approximation by selecting bright, red-colored objects (which for certain ranges of brightness and color are mostly massive elliptical galaxies). We then select a source, either from the CFHTLS catalog of faint galaxies (which includes estimates of brightness, colour, size and also distance), or from the known distribution of quasar brightnesses and colours.

To mimic the distorting and magnifying effects of gravitational lenses, we create lens models from our understanding of the theory of gravitational lensing combined with observations of known lenses. We know of several hundred gravitational lenses now, and it turns out that in almost all cases, the details of the lensing effect can be described using quite simple models for the lens mass distributions. These lens models are then used to simulate the arcs, doubles and quads you see in the Space Warps images: in each pixel of the simulated image we compute the value of the brightness of the lensed features predicted by the model.

The final step is to make sure that the simulated lensed features appear as they would in a real image. The Space Warps images were all taken with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea, and their resolution is limited mostly due to the atmosphere – we can tell how blurry the images are by looking at stars in the images. It turns out that the CFHTLS images all have roughly the same resolution, so we blur the lensed features by the same amount. We then add noise, and overlay the simulated lensed features on top of the image that contains the massive object we selected, so that the image looks as realistic as possible.

Q: Should I mark all the simulated images, even if I have marked/seen them before? Why is this useful?
A: Marking sims is very important – the analysis of the Space Warps classifications depends on it! We’ll blog about this process soon, but the central point is this: when we present a new lens candidate found at Space Warps to the rest of the scientific community, we need to estimate how likely it is to be a real gravitational lens system. This is tricky: the Space Warps classifications come from citizen scientists who have various degrees of experience and skill. We expect some people to be good at spotting faint arcs, others might be good at searching all the way to the edges of the images, while others might be better at efficiently rejecting objects that look like lenses but are not. Our analysis software uses the simulated lens sample to quantify the collaboration’s expertise, and then assesses the likelihood of a lens candidate based on the classifications it has received. The uninteresting and less likely lens candidates are then “retired” from the database every day, so that we don’t have to look at them any more than necessary. Without the sims (and also the dud images, that are known not to contain any lenses), it would be much harder to estimate the likelihood of an image containing a lens, given its classifications. So please keep marking them, even if you’ve seen them before!

Q. Can’t I turn the sims off?
A. We thought about this – but when we were testing the site, we found that if we went for a long period without being shown a simulation, we started missing lenses because we were going too fast! So we decided to keep the sims in, albeit at a low frequency, to keep us on our toes!

Q: Why do some sims look a bit odd?
A: We use simple models to represent the lens and source galaxies; these simple models work fairly well in most cases, but sometimes they fail to capture some of the more unusual objects in the Universe. Since the whole process of generating sims is automated (so that we can make a large enough sample to get good statistics from) and we can only perform visual checks on a small sample, we do expect to have a few systems that may not look quite right.

Here are some of the most common failure modes:

(a) Simulated arcs around nearby spiral galaxies. These are listed as having the incorrect distance in the CFHTLS catalog: they have the right brightness for a massive galaxy, but that’s because they are near, and not actually massive! They are assigned larger distances as the colour of their bulges is very similar to that of massive elliptical galaxies further away. Such spiral galaxies would have very small Einstein radius – but in the simulation, the arcs are predicted to be too far away from the bulge (i.e. the centre of the spiral) for it to be a plausible lens.

(b) Abnormally thick arcs. This happens when the source is too big and bright to be a plausible background source. Again, this can happen if the source galaxy we drew from the CFHTLS catalog was listed with an inaccurate size.

(c) Wide separation lenses around tiny galaxies. This can happen if the galaxy we are using as a lens is listed in the catalog as being brighter than it is (most likely due to inaccuracies in the inferred distance to this galaxy).

Q: I see two lens systems in a single image (a combination of simulated and/or real lenses), what should I mark?
A: Please mark at least one lensed image for each lens system: we need the simulated lens to be marked so that the analysis software knows you saw it, but then marking any real lenses will register that object as a potential real lens candidate as well. (Also, see the FAQ page on Space Warps).

Q: How can I tell if I am marking a simulated or real image?
A: You shouldn’t be able to, as the simulated images should give you a good indication of what a real lens should look like! You’ll know as soon as you hit “Finished Marking” though, because the Space Warps system always gives feedback straight away.

Q: I see a simulated lens on top of a known real lens. What do I do?
A: We have tried to exclude the real lenses from the simulated lens sample, but unfortunately all real lenses were not successfully excluded (Apologies!). This is not a matter of concern though: we’ll re-inject the images that were used in making the sims into the Space Warps database, but without the simulated lenses. For the time being, please continue to mark any or all of the lensed images that you spot, irrespective of whether you think they are simulated or real.

The discussion of the sims in Talk has been really helpful – thanks for your questions, and for catching the problems mentioned above!


9 responses to “Sim City”

  1. Mark Williamson says :

    Thanks for this excellent blog, answers pretty much all the questions i had about the sims!

  2. Jean Tate says :

    Who developed the Lens Model(s)?

    • Phil Marshall says :

      Anupreeta and Surhud did almost all the work, using the public CFHTLS catalogs and Keeton’s “gravlens” code to make the mass models. The rest of the science team advised from the sidelines!

  3. Ron Dinsdale says :

    I agree with Mark Williamsons post of 27th May

  4. Peter Backes says :

    Obvious (?) question: Why use simulations at all? Why not throw in images of confirmed lenses to keep things interesting?

    • Phil Marshall says :

      The not-so-obvious answer is that we are interested in finding new lenses that are different from what has already been found (by computer algorithms that contain certain assumptions). Our expectation is that people will be able to spot these new systems more readily, because they are more imaginative! But yes, we could have included the known lenses as well. After the first Space Warps project is done we will have a better “training set” of known lenses, that will help both computer algorithms and crowds of spotters improve.

    • anupreeta27 says :

      Hi Peter,
      That’s a good question.
      I’d like to state one more reason in addition to what Phil mentioned: the number of known lenses are too few to either serve as a training sample or a sample that can be used for tests with algorithm. Therefore, we created sims with a large enough sample size that would serve both the purposes.

      Also, the real lenses are not usually perfect looking, standard book examples of lenses. Using such a lens sample wouldn’t be ideal to train novice users. Many of sims provide us just that with lots of simple image patterns and then a few strange/difficult ones.

  5. Chris Wood says :

    I whole-heartedly agree with what’s said under “Can’t I turn the sims off?” I can’t claim to detect every sim – some are pretty marginal after all – but missing an obvious one tells me I’m either going too fast, not looking to the edges, or being distracted by something else interesting in the image. I think they provide an invaluable “pay attention!” call.

  6. Edie Diaz says :

    I appreciate the blog. I believe that the sims keep me sharp during my viewings (in agreement with Chris Wood). Also the sims remind me to look carefully at the entire slide and not just the hot spots.

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