Science Hack Day – co-author cloud, lookUP images from Wikipedia, and more

Right now, a really cool event is happening at the Guardian in London – Science Hack Day. The basic premise is: get a load of science geeks* together in the same room, give them food and internet access, and see what they create. The official catchphrase is “Get excited and make things … with science!” I had been hoping to go along to the event, but in the end I found that I couldn’t find the energy to face Virgin Trains or have a very tiring weekend in between tiring weeks, so in the end I decided to watch from afar.

The first hacks are now being shared with the world, and I want to highlight two of them – hence this blog post.

Carolina Ödman and Stuart Lowe have created the “Co-Author Cloud” – essentially a tag cloud for who you’ve written papers with, but much nicer than most tag clouds – this one comes with extra swirly-ness! Here’s my little one (it is slowly growing over time…)

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The second one of them is lookUP. This is a great tool that Stuart Lowe’s been developing for some time now. It takes the name of an astronomical object, and looks it up in various online catalogues and databases to find out what it is. For most objects, it looks up the picture in WikiSky, but it can’t do that for objects that move around the sky – e.g. planets. Stuart’s modified it this weekend so that it looks up the planet on Wikipedia, and returns an image from there – see Ceres as an example. There’s a slight bug for high-resolution images – it uses the full resolution version rather than rescaling it, so Saturn is currently very slow – but I’m sure that Stuart will fix this soon.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of the outcomes of Science Hack Day! To hear what’s going on, follow @sciencehackday or the hashtag #scihack.

* Geeks in a good way, of course.

Intelligent life: does it exist?

The Independent published an article yesterday about “Seti: The hunt for ET”, in the form of a bullet point list of 50 items. There are a lot of gems this article – it’s well worth reading (and then checking Wikipedia for the complete story in each case). I couldn’t resist drawing attention to, and commenting on, some of them though – hence this blog post in addition to my twitter.

33. In the mid-1990s, Seti scientists thought they were on to something when they picked up a signal every evening at 7pm. It turned out to be from a microwave oven used by technicians in the cellar at the Parkes Observatory in Australia. There is now a note on the microwave asking people not to use it while Seti is active.’

This is one of those great stories that mixes the trivial with the extraordinary, which happens so often in radio astronomy (and presumably in science in general). I could imagine an abbreviated conversation about this going like: “Wow – we’ve detected aliens!”, “Yes – they work downstairs.”

34. Other false calls have included signals from electronic garage doors, jet airliners, radios, televisions and even the Pioneer space craft. “We found intelligent life,” said Richard Davis, a radio astronomer at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, “but it was us.”‘

I’m not sure that I agree with this assessment – intelligent life exists on Earth? Is that the all-pervasive silicon lifeform that’s been spreading over the planet for the last 70 years or so? If so, that might explain why no communication attempts from ET have been detected – they’ve been identified as DDOS attacks and blocked. 😉

The oddest one is:

12. The most promising radio signal found to date, SHGb02+14a, was detected in 2003 at Arecibo. It was found on three occasions but emanates from between the constellations of Pisces and Aries where there are no stars. It is also a very weak signal. Scientists think it may have been due to an astrological phenomenon or a computer glitch.’

Why is that odd? What have “astrological phenomenon” got to do with science? Do they even exist (except in the mental constructs of humans)? Perhaps they meant “astronomical phenomenon”, which is something completely different? (Thanks to Stuart for pointing this out – until then I was in blissful ignorance…)


5. So far, no alien signals have been heard, however.”

Planck and Herschel launched!

5 seconds to launch!
Five seconds to launch!

Planck and Herschel successfully launched today, after 21 and 25 years of development respectively! At Manchester, we had a launch party, with somewhere around 100 people packed into a room watching the live satellite feed. The event was twittered live, and we had a screen at the front showing live Twitter comments from people around the world about the launch.

Planck will be mapping the Cosmic Microwave Background – similar to how it has already been mapped by WMAP and COBE, but at a much higher resolution and accuracy. It will be observing the oldest radiation in the universe, and probing back to the very beginnings of the universe. Herschel will be observing at far infrared and submillimeter wavelengths, looking at the evolution of gas to form stars and galaxies.

The Planck group at Jodrell
The Planck group at Manchester

Lots of people at Jodrell have been involved with the creation of Planck – ranging from the creation of the world’s best low noise amplifiers for the instrument, to testing Planck and making sure that it’s ready for observations – and in the future will be analysing its data and producing cosmology from it.

Congratulations to all involved with the design, creation and launch of these two spacecraft! The Universe awaits your observations…


The STEREO spacecraft. CREDIT: NASA, via Wikipedia
The STEREO spacecraft. CREDIT: NASA, via Wikipedia

I have to confess, it’s been a while since I’ve actually sat down with a pen and paper during a lecture and taken down notes. I don’t normally need to – I hopefully absorb the important things, and the details aren’t quite as important to remember as they can normally be found in papers. This time, however, I wanted to put summaries on here, so thus far I’ve taken around 8 pages worth… Now I just have to work out what to say here.

The most interesting talk I’ve been to so far from the point of view of learning the most was the plenary talk on STEREO yesterday morning. The sun is definitely not my field (way too local), although I’ve looked at it a few times through a solar telescope, so I was mostly relying on my knowledge from undergraduate and a few extra talks. STEREO, as the name might suggest, is actually two satellites, both going away from the earth but in opposite directions, giving us a 3D view of the sun. It also gives us a view of the Earth-Sun line – which you normally look down, rather than across. That means that we can see coronal mass ejections coming towards us, and gain up to 2 days of advanced notice – very important, considering the impact that these have on satellites and the Earth in general. The first Earth-impacting one of these was actually seen – from both sides – in the middle of December 2008! This wasn’t seen at all by Earth-based instruments. STEREO has also seen other cool things, including the stripping of a comet’s tail by a coronal mass ejection. More info on STEREO is on Wikipedia.

More coming when I get the time…


So… it’s probably about time I started using this blog properly. :-)

Music and Astronomy event at JENAM 2009
Music and Astronomy event at JENAM 2009

I’m currently at JENAM, which is a combination of the Royal Astronomical Society’s Annual General Meeting and the Joint European and National Astronomy Meeting. It’s based at The University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. Its starting event was a buffet (free food and drinks; always good), followed by a Music and Astronomy event. Although I was a bit dubious going in, this turned out to be quite a good event – classical music combined with an overview of the history of the relationship between music and astronomy (the two are linked by a surprising number of things). Hopefully the image on the right gives a flavour of the event: strings on the left (with a piano on the far left; sadly I couldn’t get this in as well), with two speakers on the right and Jon Culshaw in the middle interjecting quotes in the style of various famous people (Sir Patrick Moore, George Brown, George Bush, …).

The speakers (and percussionist) at the Music and Astronomy event at JENAM
The speakers (and percussionist) at the Music and Astronomy event at JENAM

On the left are the people leading the evening: the right-most two are Alice Williamson and Dr. Robert Priddey, who were narrating the event, and that’s Jon again second from the left. I think the telescope is a likeness of the one Gallileo used (not the real one; that’s apparently in philladelphia).

Tomorrow the real work begins – 8 or 9 parallel presentation sessions from 9am to 6pm, packed full with lots of science. Should be fun. I’ll be trying to twitter throughout, although the lack of mains sockets in at least the main hall will probably hamper me (my battery life isn’t what it used to be…). It’s obviously impossible to go to all the talks, so I’ll be focusing on cosmology and galaxy clusters, perhaps with some radio astronomy mixed in. :)

BTW, Dr. Mario M. Bisi has also covered this event, and will presumably be blogging about the rest of the conference too from a solar physics perspective. Is there anyone else blogging this too?