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Posts Tagged ‘Astronomy & Space’

.Astronomy 3 – day 1

Jill Tarter sets the tone at .Astronomy 3

This morning opened with a fascinating talk by Jill Tarter, director of the Centre for SETI Research. Her message was full of perspective, some physics, an overview of Kepler (see the Kepler Orrery here) and some really interesting technical aspects of the data and challenge of data processing in real time with citizen scientists. The challenge is that of setiQuest and it will be tackled at the Google Summer of Code this year. As the numerous favourite quotes from this talk populating the #dotastro twitter stream demonstrate, it was quite a start to the day.

Next came a string of inspiring presentations.

Ed Gomez from LCOGT showed off the great Virtual Sky, presented the upcoming Star in a Box (stay tuned) and invited everyone to take part in agent exoplanet!.

LCOGT uses Linked Data

Mike Peel‘s presentation initiated a debate about the use of Wikipedia in Astronomy. His talk can be found here – and is well worth a read!

Matt Wood, our favourite Amazon Technology evangelist enthused us with his Amazon web services and, as sponsor of the conference, gave us a bunch of vouchers to use the hack day tomorrow and for the rest of the meeting.

Before lunch, Chris Lintott attempted to give a talk without mentioning the Zooniverse and almost succeeded. His talk, about why the internet is terrible, touched upon how the internet is influencing the way we think. While some agreed that social networking around interests reduced serendipity, others argued that social networks led to more serendipitous discoveries of interests. The debate goes on…

Full room for the first morning


Everyone was enthusiastically tweeting on at least two devices simultaneously and we were trying to ustream the meeting to the point of breaking the network… Sorry #dotastro followers. 90 connections were not enough for 40 odd people this morning. The issue was subsequently fixed.

After a copious lunch with a memorable series of deserts, the afternoon took off with three parallel unconference sessions.

Live coding with Processing


Twitter is another way to follow #dotastro when the afternoon sessions are not broadcast.


The ‘Citizen operated spacecraft’ session was led by Michael Johnson and covered topics such as low-cost space exploration devices, the consequences of making space exploration affordable for citizens, the ethics of bringing space within citizens’ reach, what benefits there are to citizen space exploration (outreach and education, engineering skills, contributions to science) – and a controversial debate of exploration vs science. Each of these topics being worth a blog post on its own, we are looking for volunteers from the session to share their notes with us…

In the Processing 101 session, participants learnt to start playing around with Processing, an open source visualisation language and development environment based on Java that allows to create animated interactive powerful visualisations. After going through a live coding Hello World example in the form of a growing white circle on a bright red background, everyone was let loose. An image annotation app and an image-to-audio app were developed in the session, among other cool bits of code. Hopefully the game will continue at the Hack day tomorrow afternoon.

Another session led by Norman Gray focused on Linked Open Data. The two areas of focus were – the semantic web in practice and – the machine-readable web. At the session, the question ‘What is it for?’ was addressed. The suumary is that making the web machine-readable should be easy to use but it is tedious to implement. Norman predicted that the machine-readable web will come about when people with lots of data will want to make their data available to others.

Kinect in motion

Jonathan Fay demonstrated the World Wide Telescope (WWT). He imported data from various origins and visualised them in the WWT. The WWT is now interfaced with and etc. and allows users to do much more with their own images and their own data. Tomorrow at the Hack day, we will have a demonstration of how the WWT can be used using Microsoft’s Kinect technology. Let’s go surf in outer space!

Megan Schwamb led a discussion about the future of large data-driven astronomy. Parsing, searching, doing science with big data require new methods. The debate led to a discussion on how to get more support and recognition for astroinfomatics and astrostatistics and what career paths are there for the astrosoftware engineers of today and tomorrow. There was also a discussion about the limitaions of models to compare data with and how human intervention is still crucial to discover what we don’t know is there to discover.

The last unconference session was about Gloria, a Spanish networked telescope project organised by the Montegancedo Observatory. Gloria involves the establishment of telecommunication standards for networkable telescopes such that astronomers (amateur and professional) can make their telescopes available for remote observations and how those without access to telescopes can carry out observations remotely.

All the participants are invited to share their photos and other digital memorabilia to the .Astronomy flickr group

Sutherland, Northern Cape

Telescopes are built in remote places to see clearly into space without interference from electromagnetic waves generated by humans (visible light or radio). But they are not necessarily built where no one lives.

So what is life like in a small remote town in the Northern Cape, where the skies attract astronomers from around the world? It is not going too well for most of the community. Spending time in such a town, playing with the kids, talking to the people, you learn lots about life. You see things from a new perspective, you see the observatory through the eyes of the community: there is a disconnect but there is wonder at the beauty of the night sky – as if the observatory frames the most familiar of sights and gives it a new light. And you listen to people and talk. There’s nothing like it. I have spent a lot of time in Sutherland in the last three weeks and I have loved every moment. It is an incredible place. There is despair, and there is hope. There is a lot of work and there is a lot of inspiration.

Here is the view of the township area of the small town of Sutherland, seen from the ‘Ou Lokasie’, the place where they used to live before being forcibly removed by the Group Areas Act of the Apartheid government. Hopefully, more will follow about this project.

New technologies and old data

The .Astronomy meeting series is the place to discuss networked astronomy and the new media

On Tuesday I gave a talk in Portsmouth where I am visiting the ICG this week. The topic was ‘Networked Astronomy’ and I’m going to post a summary of it when I get round to it. Astronomy on the network is a growing topic and discussions went on for a while after the talk, which I take as a good sign.

Despite interesting conversations I can’t help but feel that we’re stuck in a mindset that ‘social networking is only useful for outreach’ and if that’s what I conveyed, then I failed to a certain extent.

One question by @klmasters led to two cool conversations:

What happens to ‘old research’? Doesn’t it get forgotten with all these new [astronomy tools] coming online?

My short answer was that it has probably always happened, as recent research is always more easily accessible than older research and that it’s also the role of the scientist to appropriately refer to, and cite the work upon which his research is built.

But it’s a really good question that deserves more than a short post-talk answer and is well worth its own few conversations over coffee.

Old data

Good point. What happens to the old data and publications – are they really forgotten?

At .Astronomy last year we had a long conversation about buried data, which I won’t repeat here but it’s rich and relevant. In fact it is not clear-cut what to do about it other than everyone agrees that it would be good to not lose all the old data.

In 2008, a group of three undergraduate students of the University of Leiden found an exoplanet. They had been given 8-year old data(!) from one of their professors who had simply not had a chance to work with it.

Now, there is a call for collecting old data – started by an astronomer; see this feature in Nature.

Nasa's Scientific Visualization Studio creates compelling graphics based on both data and simulations.

I can’t help but feel two ways about this. On the one hand it’s great to record old data, especially in astronomy or planetary sciences (e.g. climate research on Earth) where things evolve over astronomical timescales. Being able to put observations together spanning decades or more can be really useful.

On the other hand the acclaimed ‘data deluge’ (PDF) or ‘data bonanza’ that is coming from modern and future instruments, is a problem: the scientific community doesn’t yet have the capacity to exploi fully the projected petabytes of data from, e.g. LSST (PDF), ALMA (PDF) or the SKA (PDF).

So there it is, folks: to revive or to forget? Can we keep standing on the shoulders of giants and still see the ground?

Make good APIs!

Same question (old data), other direction to the conversation.

People started talking about the effect of the arXiv on older publications when it started. David Wands and Robert Crittenden started publishing more or less at that time. They both said they had the impression that the arXiv e-print service had changed the way scientists became aware of research and that astronomers started looking less at older publications. The counter argument was that you can find all old publications on the ADS abstract service and this is of course a fantastic resource.

Some research was done on the effect of accessibility of publications on their citation rate (arXiv:cs/0503029).

Kurtz and his coauthors argue that it’s not about open access (OA effect, free access to publications), but about early access (EA effect, access to the paper on arXiv before it’s published) and self-selection bias (SB effect where authors promote the most citable papers online. This research was carried out in 2005 – tools like twitter have since increased the possible serendipity to come across good papers). They write:

Taken together these figures suggest that, in astronomy, there is a strong EA effect and a strong SB effect; there is also no indication of any OA effect. At first this seems counterintuitive; if more people could read a document one might expect that more people would then cite it.

We suggest that the basic reason why there seems no OA effect in astronomy is that for a person to be in the position to write an article for a core astronomy journal that person must already be in a position to read those journals, and must also be in a position to perform astronomical research. In terms of barriers to entry into the astronomical research community the second requirement is much larger than the first. Because the marginal cost of being an astronomer with access to the core literature is so much lower than the cost of being an astronomer in the first place, it is reasonable to postulate that essentially all astronomers have access to the core literature through existing channels, and thus do not require an OA alternative path in order to read and cite articles.

This raises a separate issue about astronomy being a high entry barrier science, but that’s a different story.

I would argue that it’s also about easy access. Something that is easy to find will naturally be more visible, even when people are looking for something very specific. They key to that is speed and the weapon of choice is APIs.

If you have data but don’t have the time or money to write the interface yourself, write a good API rather than a poor interface. That way users can write interfaces for you.

ADS has no API and you have to fill in their rather rich web form by hand to find papers. The form has lots of options but how many of us have ever used more than, say, author names, years and perhaps journal?

The arXiv has an API but it is a bit incomplete, e.g. you can’t filter queries by time, even if the papers are so well organised time-wise.

The public sector has pressing economic incentives to make good APIs and it shows, see Mendeleys’ API for example.

I feel that astronomers are often too used to ‘make do’ with what they’ve got in terms of obscure software, data that are hard to fetch and publications that must be dug up by hand. When someone feels they’ve had enough – usually a graduate student with a good background in programming – they go ahead and code something for themselves (a good mashup) that makes it much easier. If they go the extra length and make it available to others, it can become a huge success simply because it answers what many have been thinking but few have been doing anything about (facebook-effect?).

Even if that’s not discovering new fundamental physics, it sure contributes to research and should be recognised as such.

Tools that make life easier free up mind space for thinking creatively about science are great. Such tools are real applications of problem solving with vision, rather than problem solving with a case-by-case perspective.

That’s what I think, anyway :)

HartRAO 26m: a recommissioned telescope

HartRAO from carolune on Vimeo.

The 26m radio dish in Krugersdorp near Pretoria in South Africa was recommissioned in July 2010 after the bearing was fixed. Here it is in action again, making good use of the new bearing!

The 26m radio dish in Krugersdorp near Pretoria in South Africa was recommissioned in July 2010 after the bearing was fixed. Here it is in action again, making good use of the new bearing!

The telescope is very important because of its unique position in the global VLBI1 network. It is the only southern hemisphere dish on that longitude slice of the Earth:

HartRAO in the Global VLBI network

(1) VLBI stands for ‘Very Long Baseline Interferometry’: it’s a system where the combination of signals from distant telescopes looking at the same thing results in a much higher resolution measurement of what they are looking at.

The Middle East and Africa take to the stars

The South African Astronomical Observatory is organising the second ever International Astronomical Union Middle-East and Africa Regional Meeting, a large international conference focusing on the astronomical research from those two regions of the world. 20 years ago, such a meeting would not have crossed many people’s mind: the African and Middle Eastern research communities would not have been considered large enough. What has happened in the last couple of decades to bring the Middle East and Africa to the front row of astronomical research?

Astronomy research meetings

The International Astronomical Union, honorable body of some 10,000 professional astronomers worldwide organises several types of meetings:
- The general assemblies, where big decisions like the reclassification of Pluto are taken,
- specialised symposia by topic such as the upcoming Symposium 277 in Burkina Faso,
- and regional meetings that bring a community together over a wide range of subject of study, who work in the same part of the globe.

Astronomy is not equally developed around the world. IAU Working Groups and others have compiled a comprehensive vision of the state of astronomy around the world. A summary by region is shown below.

Levels of development of astronomy in different regions of the world. Source: 'Astronomy for the Developing World Building from the IYA2009, Strategic Plan 2010–2020' Available for download on the IAU website (see below)

The colour green indicates a well developed research community. The two regions with the least green are the Middle East and Africa. Most would probably expect this but in spite of these statistics, the astronomical research community in the region has reached a critical mass – enough to place it on the world map of Astronomy and to deserve an IAU Regional Meeting.

Telescopes and People

Southern Africa has always been a desirable location to place telescopes because of skies being among the clearest and most stable in the world (1). The danger is that if mostly international telescopes are built, scientists only come to visit, observe and return to their country of origin once they have collected their data without leaving much of a legacy with the local population. The same applies to South America and other developing regions where the lack of infrastructure translates into little light pollution and other industrial sources of interference with sensitive astronomical instruments.(2)

Consistent commitment by the South African government – who identified astronomy as a science where they have a competitive advantage – has strengthened astronomy in the country with initiatives around new telescopes like the Southern African Large Telescope, MeerKAT and the bid to host the Square Kilometer Array and most importantly with a proactive approach to developing people: The NASSP programme forms the next generation of South African and African astronomers, local universities with astronomy, theoretical physics and cosmology research groups offer research projects to AIMS students. A wide network of astronomy outreach, education and training for teachers, journalists and scientists across the continent was initiated for the International Year of Astronomy (the same people led the Developing Astronomy Globally Cornerstone programme) and helped existing efforts and new initiatives towards the establishment of new university modules and programmes to train a new generation of astronomers. Those African astronomers will constitute a highly-qualified workforce for the next generation of astronomical instruments.

In addition to astronomy-based initiatives, a wide network of Space-related programmes is also growing across the continent under the leadership of Nigeria and South Africa. The African Union has even recently begun work with the UN to establish an African Space Agency.

The importance of a strong regional network

In 2007 the executive committee of the IAU gathered in Cape Town. It was proposed that a meeting for the last region not to have one be initiated. After much negotiation with a number of partners, it was agreed that the Middle East and Africa region did indeed deserve such a meeting. I believe that the rationale behind this meeting is two-fold: it serves to present the latest research carried out in the region, and it is plays a key networking role. Through social/work interactions like those taking place at conferences, the general awareness of the community grows. That automatically leads to new collaborations and opportunities, and strengthens the community.

In fact, scientists in countries with little regional collaboration are often regionally isolated. They will typically mostly collaborate with colleagues in countries where the field is very well developed. This is all well and good but leads to an isolation of those scientists simply because they don’t get to meet their colleagues as often as others. Moreover, the flow of information and knowledge ends up being channeled through the developed world. A strong regional network helps to solve both those challenges: geographically close colleagues can meet more regularly, and the knowledge and new research spreads across the region without having to go through the hub of the developed world.

How to best solve those challenges by consolidating a community is a matter of debate. Some will prefer formal professional associations. Personally, I am in favour of an informal network that – if the demand arises from the community – can be given a formal structure to facilitate its operations, i.e. serve as a platform and organisational lubricant by e.g. centralising information about fellowships or funding opporunities, serve as official partner in funded programmes, etc. Such an organisation requires a lively community that has grown a few notches above the critical mass. the Middle East and Africa communities seem to be getting there steadily and globally this is now going to be supported by the Office for Astronomy Development propitiously located in South Africa as well.

Join us for MEARIM 2011

So if you are interested in what is going on in astronomy in the Middle East and in Africa, and would like to see change in action, dig in to your research grant and come and make new friends at the 2011 MEARIM meeting. The dates are April 10 – 15, in Cape Town, South Africa (3).


The IAU Strategic plan for development is available at this http URL

An interesting read for those of you who are interested in seeing how this evolution fits in with the evolution of the field of astronomy globally, is a book called ‘New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics’ published by the US National Academy Press.

1: for more on the best astronomical sites in the world, see this overview from Vik Dhillon at Sheffield University, UK)

2: See this special report in Nature on how the astronomy community is moving out of this habit

3: The meeting will take place at the same venue as the hugely successful CAP2010 meeting.