Jill Tarter TED Prize

The Technology, Entertainment & Design conference (TED) runs every year in California and brings together great speakers to talk about a wonderful variety of topics. Each year TED awards prizes to help three individuals achieve their wish. As Sarah has already pointed out, this year one of the prizes went to Dr Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute. The wording of her TED wish is:

I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.

She gave a beautiful speech to TED and the video is now available for everyone to see. I have to say that her slides were perfect and I wish more scientific talks would aim for that level of simplicity and clarity. Hopefully the talk should appear below.


I was lucky enough to meet Jill during the Modern Radio Universe conference in Manchester in 2007. She was a very lovely person and even managed to spare some time to be interviewed for the Jodcast. I wish her all the best for her research.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 21st Feb 2009 (18:45 GMT) | Permalink

Cosmic Signature

We've all seen lots of examples of pareidolia - misinterpreting random noise as significant patterns - and Phil has provided countless examples over the years. A new one was pointed out to me by a colleague just the other day. It is in this great image of the cosmic microwave background radiation as seen by WMAP.

WMAP 5 year extract
Internal Linear Combination Map using 5 years of WMAP data. CREDIT: The WMAP team
Can you see it? I'll give you a clue. You are looking for the initials of one of the world's most famous physicists. He has been on the Simpsons, in Star Trek, and has even been a fictional hip-hop artist. I couldn't spot it until it was physically pointed out to me but now I can't help but see it every time I look at the map.

WMAP 5 year
Part of the Internal Linear Combination Map using 5 years of WMAP data. CREDIT: The WMAP team.
If you're having trouble, here is a close up of the relevant part of the image. It is taken from a patch just to the left of centre in the Mollweide projection above. The initials S and H can be seen straddling the boundaries between Cygnus, Lyra, Hercules, Sagitta and Aquila.

Of course this doesn't mean that Stephen Hawking has graffitied the universe on a cosmic scale. They are just random temperature fluctuations in the cosmic background that happen to look vaguely like letters. To make matters worse, they have even less significance because they are very close to the plane of the Milky Way (which runs across the middle of the full sky map above) and this region of the map suffers from contamination by the galaxy.

It reminds me of a story I once heard about someone managing to write ELVIS into an interferometric image by cleaning the data in just the right (or wrong!) way.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 20th Feb 2009 (02:52 GMT) | Permalink

Ego balancing

This post is about astro-politics so if you are disinterested in that sort of stuff, please move along and read something more interesting.

I'm pretty low down the ladder when it comes to astronomy and therefore don't have much experience. My hope in writing this post is to elicit some constructive responses from those that are my elders and/or more knowledgeable, to put me right where needed.

Since the great physics funding crisis of 2007/8 I have been trying to get my head around the politics between people, institutions and the main funding council, STFC. Within the funding allocation process is the very admirable idea that projects should be funded based on scientific merit through peer review. I agree with this sentiment. I am also increasingly suspicious that egos play a significant (that doesn't not necessarily mean large) role in it too. This makes me uncomfortable.

In the publication of scientific papers, peer review seems to work fairly well. The person reviewing a paper may reject it but the author usually has chance to request a second (or even third) referee if they feel they were unfairly treated. This doesn't always work but, in general, the checks and balances seem to ensure that papers are published based on their scientific merit. In funding council decisions however, I'm not entirely sure that peer review is implemented in the best way.

As I understand it, the peer review process consists of a panel of astronomers from different institutions deciding on the scientific merit of different proposals. I've heard that when the panel discuss a proposal that involves one of the panel, that person rightly steps outside of the room so that they don't influence the discussion. This is good behaviour as it should, in theory at least, remove the self-interest of that proposal. However, given that overall funding is limited, all proposed projects are competing against one another. That means that there is a vested interest amongst the rest of the panel, not to fund other projects that will compete against any proposals they have submitted. Also, if someone on the panel has a personal dispute with a person/group that submitted a project, it might be expected that they wouldn't be totally objective.

I am being slightly pessimistic here because I'm sure most people behave with professionalism and integrity but I expect the system to be set up in such a way that reduces the chances of these things happening. Of course, there may be mechanisms I am unfamiliar with and that is partly why I write this. My more informed readers can hopefully expand on this below. Are the proposals looked at anonymously (assuming that is even possible)? Is the panel only formed from people who haven't submitted funding proposals of their own? If it is the way I describe, is there any way to make the system better? I must admit that I don't have any suggestions on that front. Suggestions are welcome below. Please be polite.

As a footnote, I'll mention that my job is funded through the process I've described above. That gives me a vested interest. However, and as much as people will disbelieve me, if improving the system meant I lost my job I'd still rather the system was improved. Yes, really.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 18th Feb 2009 (19:21 GMT) | Permalink

365 Days 52 Weeks of Astronomy

With the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast becoming a reality, some aspects of daily podcasts have become apparent. Most importantly to me is that my podcatching software doesn't cope too well with the frequency of episodes. The software sometimes doesn't download 'old' episodes because a couple of newer shows appeared in the days since it last checked. Also, rather than listening every day, I find myself playing catch-up by listening to episodes in bursts. The down side of doing this is that I end up hearing myself doing the closing credits a little too often. So, for those like me that tend to listen on a weekly time-scale, I thought we should create a weekly edition that required as little ongoing effort as possible.

A couple of weeks ago I hacked together some rather clunky code, in several languages, which can automatically generate a weekly edition. My code slices and dices the daily shows and puts them back together into one episode per week. It seems to have worked well on the first six weeks with only a couple of minor bugs that I was able to iron out. With most of the hard work automated that only leaves the job of maintaining the RSS feed. Rob has very kindly volunteered to take on that responsibility.

Without further ado, the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy presents the 52 Weeks of Astronomy RSS feed. This is not a replacement of the daily podcast but simply an alternate way to digest it. Bon appetite!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 17th Feb 2009 (16:07 GMT) | Permalink

Going to the Zoo 2

Tonight, following the rather understated countdown on Twitter, the long awaited Galaxy Zoo 2 was launched 90 minutes ahead of schedule. Galaxy Zoo gave us all the relatively simple task of sorting images of galaxies into either ellipticals or spirals. If they were spirals we then had the further task of saying if they were clockwise or anticlockwise spirals. Although this was something a 10 year old could easily do, I heard that it did prove more tricky for certain unnamed physics professors.

In Zoo 2 the questions get much more detailed. There are questions that determine the smoothness of galaxies, their ellipticity, properties of the spiral arms and even the central bulges. In fact, it looks as though everyone taking part in Zoo 2 will quickly become experts is recreating Hubble's famous tuning fork diagram.

As in the first incarnation of the Zoo, it is the unexpected that can prove the most interesting. The Zoo Keepers have added in options to report different types of unexpected shapes to help spot galaxy mergers, rings, gravitational lenses, and other interesting things.

We're all going to the Zoo. You can come too.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 17th Feb 2009 (01:20 GMT) | Permalink

Daily Podcast of the IYA

Readers of my blog should be aware already of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. The 365 Days of Astronomy is the official podcast of the International Year of Astronomy and is created by a huge number of individuals and institutions from around the world. January and February have covered a wide variety of topics already and the rest of the year promises to expand on that. The topics have covered everything from Galileo, to pulsars, to Shakespeare, models of the Solar System and exoplanets. In fact, volunteers for the podcast have been so plentiful that the entire 2009 calendar is now full. In the coming days you can look forward to episodes about navigating the solar system, the life and times of Nicolaus Copernicus, and dwarf planet Pluto.

If you haven't seen it already, you should also check out George Hrab's music video for the theme tune:


Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 15th Feb 2009 (12:18 GMT) | Permalink

So Over Twitter

With the recent media coverage of twitter, the usual suspects have been writing newspaper columns about how awful they think it is. They point out the banality of it. They say it is narcissistic. They point out that it is very difficult to be profound in 140 characters. They say that twitter is a silly word even if it has a good heritage. All this is largely true but what they don't seem to get is the potential the platform allows. Twitter has many ways of piping information in (e.g. web, IM, txt, perl etc) and many ways of getting it back out again. It is this openness and ease of use that makes it so attractive to people who like to tinker with new ideas.

In August 2007 Paul Mison and his wife Candace created the AboveLondon twitter feed for Hackday London. This took predictions for viewing the International Space Station from London and piped them into twitter. Then in September 2007 Rob decided to take the idea further and produce twitter streams for a few more cities. He took data about passes from the excellent Heavens Above website and added in a check of the local weather to see if it was worth telling you about it; obviously if it was cloudy you wouldn't see anything. Over the past 18 months these have done a sterling job and have helped me spot the ISS a fair few times.

Last week, as I took the advantage of promoting Rob's service on twitter, he added a whole new bunch of cities. Now you can follow Over Cardiff, Over Aix-en-Provence, Over Birmingham, Over Milton Keynes, Over Edinburgh, Over Paris, Over Sydney, Over New York, Over San Fran, Over Hong Kong, Over Belfast, Over Dublin, Over Indy, Over Honolulu, Over Mauna Kea, Over Vancouver, Over Chicago, Over Joburg, Over Tokyo, Over Mumbai, Over Moscow, Over Athens, Over Rome, Over Berlin, Over Madrid, Over Amsterdam, Over Los Angeles, Over Boston, Over Auckland. If you use twitter and want another city added, just send @orbitingfrog a message.

If you prefer your alerts in ways other than twitter, Rob now lets you generate an RSS feed of alerts for your location so you can subscribe in your web browser, email client or probably even pipe it to your internet fridge. Great work Rob.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 03rd Feb 2009 (21:50 GMT) | Permalink
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