This was an amazing week.

On Wednesday the Rosetta spacecraft launched the tiny Philae lander on a 10km journey to the surface of a comet: a mountain-sized rock, millions of miles from Earth. This was a first that touched many around the world, millions of whom who followed the event online. It took ten years to get Rosetta into a position where this was possible, with teams of people working to make it happen in Europe and around the world.

On Friday my nephew Taliesin, who has Cerebral Palsy, walked 1km to school for the first time in his life. He did it for Children in Need – you can still donate! No wheelchair, just his walking sticks. This was also a first that touched many around the world, hundreds of whom followed the event online. It has been three years since Tal had an operation (SDR) to improve his condition, one that ultimately made this walk possible, with a team of fundraisers at home and a medical team in St. Louis; not to mention his tireless parents.

Tal and Philae both had their mountains to conquer but, for me at least, one of these story’s is more incredible than the other. So here’s my favourite image from the past few days – and it’s entirely Earthbound.

IMG_3750-1.JPG

Sadly, Philae has powered down, and its mission may have come to an end. For Tal though, things continue to improve. Tal is an inspiration to so many, and I’m incredibly proud of him and his family for going the distance this week, and for the past few years.

Hopefully I’ll report on both these stories in the future. Meanwhile you can read Tal’s story on the BBC. You can support kids like Tal, and their families, by checking out SDR Wales, or supporting organisations like Bobath Wales.

H₂O might be the most familiar chemical compound on the planet. Many people know that water is H₂O, but most wouldn’t think about what that means in a chemical sense. Water is a remarkable molecule made of two Hydrogen atoms bound to a single Oxygen atom: H, H, and O. Water’s special properties give us life as we know it, and we’re mostly made of it too. It’s less dense as a solid (ice) than as a liquid, which has major consequences for the planet and its climate. Water is also really good at storing heat, and it stays liquid over a wide range of temperatures, also very handy for life as we know it.

In short: water is amazing: but can we destroy it? Yes. With just two regular pencils and a 9V battery, you can actually break water down into it’s Hydrogen and Oxygen components, and watch them boil away as bubbles of gas. This is fundamental chemistry available to anyone at home, with stuff you might have lying around.

You’ll need some salt, a 9V battery, a drinking glass (or other transparent container), two pencils, and some wire. It ’s best to get some cheap cables with crocodile clips (I bought these ones from Amazon), since they make it much easier.

Pencil Electrolysis Kit

Pour some warm water in the glass and stir in a tablespoon of the salt. You should probably also open a window – or at least don’t do this in a tiny cupboard – a small amount of Chlorine may be produced as you do this experiment; it’s not dangerous as far as I can tell, but best to be safe.

Sharpen both the pencils at both their ends – so that’s four pencil points  in all. Connect both nodes of the battery to a different pencil using the crocodile clips.

IMG_3133

At this point I suggest you distract yourself by trying to touch the free pencil tips together to make small sparks! The electrons really ‘want’ to make a circuit and can jump across a short air gap, ionising the air and making a crackle and an electrical arc. It’s a 5mm lightning bolt on a pencil tip. But anyway, back to main point of this…

Put the free pencils ends into the water, and don’t let the tips touch. Now for the science! At this point the water becomes part of the circuit. Electrons flow down one pencil, across the water and back into the other pencil. This creates a circuit and electrons flow around it. You’ll know it’s working because this process quickly creates bubbles at the pencil tips in the water. It happens almost instantly.

IMG_3134

The energy of the electrons in the circuit is enough to break the water into Hydrogen and Oxygen ions: electrically charged versions of the elements themselves. These ions then flow to the oppositely-charged pencil tip, creating an electric current. This is known as electrolysis.

At the negative pencil tip (the anode) positively charged hydrogen ions (or just protons to some people) meet and form hydrogen gas (H₂) that bubbles to the surface. The positive pencil tip (the cathode) draws the negative Oxygen ions and form O₂. It’s a bit more complex than that, if you’ve bene counting electrons, but that’s the overall result. This is electrolysis of water and it’s the world’s primary way of producing Hydrogen – for example for hydrogen fuel cells.

You might be wondering why we need salt. This could be done without salt, but it wold happen more slowly. Can should try it, to prove it to yourself. Salt dissolves into the water creating ions of its own. These flow around the circuit too (creating Sodium and a tiny volume of Chlorine gas) and helps increase the circuit’s overall flow of electrons. You might be able to smell the faint whiff of Chlorine if you do this for long enough.

If you want to take this further, you might think about how to collect the Hydrogen and Oxygen separately – and what you might do with them if you were doing this on an industry scale.

Since 2008 I have been running .Astronomy, which is a meeting/hackathon/unconference that aims to be better than normal meetings and to foster new ideas and collaborations. It’s a playground for astro geeks that is more specific than a general hack day, but way more freeform that a normal astronomy meeting. At .Astronomy we have developed into an amazing community.

I know people that have gotten jobs because of .Astronomy, changed careers because of .Astronomy – or even left astronomy because of .Astronomy (in a good way!). We have evolved into an interesting group, with a culture and way of thinking that we take back to our ‘real’ jobs after each event.

In short: it works. Now I’d like to work out how to spread the idea into more academic fields. We’re looking for people in other research areas, such as economics, maths, chemistry, medicine and more.

Adler Planetarium

I have funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to bring a handful of non-astronomers to this year’s .Astronomy, in Chicago at the amazing Adler Planetarium (December 8-10). The aim is to meet up at the end, and discuss whether you think it could work in your own field, and what you’d need to make that happen. If you’re a researcher, who isn’t an astronomer, and you think this sounds great then that could be you! We have funding to pay for flights, hotels and expenses. It will be a lot of fun – and despite the astronomy focus of the event, I think most researchers, with a bit of tech experience, would get a lot out of it.

If you’re interested then fill out the short form at http://bit.ly/dotastromulti or email me on rob@dotastronomy.com for more information. We are following a formal selection process, but we’re doing it very quickly and will decide by Nov 7th, to allow enough time ahead of the event to make travel plans and such. So don’t delay – do it now!

If you don’t think you’re the right person for this, then maybe you know who could be. If so, let them know and send them to http://dotastronomy.com/about/astronomy-6-multidisciplinary-program/ for more information.

Screenshot 2014-09-09 16.20.32

I’ve been called a lot of things but ‘rebel’ hasn’t come up too often. Not that I mind. As part of a Mazda campaign, I’m being highlighted as one of four TED Fellows* who are ‘Mazda Rebels’. The other three are thoroughly impressive and I recommend you take a look. There’s an online vote where the pubic help chose whoever they think the deserves a Mazda grant to help their project.

My video can be found here. It’s lovely and I really enjoyed making it. It nicely describes my work with Zooniverse (special guest starring Brooke Simmons as a Snapshot Serengeti volunteer!) in a fun, accessible way. We had a laugh creating it, and they have kept many of the out-takes in the video, which I rather enjoyed.

If I win the vote then I’ll be using the money to kick-start the Zooniverse’s efforts in disaster relief with a ‘First Responders’ project. Think Milky Way Project but with aerial photos of recent disasters, with volunteers helping locate resources, danger, and people. This is something several of us at Zooniverse HQ are very keen on, and using the power of crowdsourcing in realtime after a disaster makes a lot of sense.

I highly recommend that you take a look at all four videos and vote for your favourite here: https://www.mazdarebels.com/en-gb/content/four-inspiring-ted-fellows-one-mazda-grant/

* Applications are still open to become a 2015 TED Fellow – I can highly recommend it!

ttfnrob:

Really pleased to make my Milkman app available for all MWP users :)

Originally posted on The Milky Way Project Blog:

I’ve been building a new app for the Milky Way Project called Milkman. It goes alongside Talk and allows you to see where everyone’s clicks go, and what the results of crowdsourcing look like. It’s open source, and a good step toward open science. I’d love feedback from citizen scientists and science users alike.

Milkman

Milkman is so called because it delivers data for the Milky Way Project, and maybe eventually some other Zooniverse projects too. You can access Milkman directly at explore.milkywayproject.org (where you can input a Zooniverse subject ID or search using galactic coordinates), or more usefully, you can get to Milkman via Talk – using the new ‘Explore’ button that now appears for logged-in users.

Clicking ‘Explore’ will show you the core view of Milkman: a display of all the clicks from all the volunteers who have seen that image and the current, combined results.

Screenshot 2014-09-09 09.14.38

Milkman 2

Milkman is a live, near-realtime view of…

View original 180 more words

daily_Zooniverse

‘Something awesome from the Zooniverse every day’ was the tagline that we came up with, almost a year ago, for a new Zooniverse blog: Daily Zooniverse. Grant Miller had recently arrived to work at Zooniverse HQ in Oxford and I had a todo list of things I’d always wanted to try but hadn’t found the time for. The Daily Zooniverse was right at the top.

The Zooniverse has spawned more than 30 citizen science projects, generated almost 100 peer-reviewed academic publications, and engaged more than one million people! Surely we had the capacity to share one cool thing every day? That was the challenge I laid at Grant’s feet last year and he has risen to it. Somehow, for the past 359 days, Grant has managed to post something (anything!) Zooniverse-related to the blog at daily.zooniverse.org.

Team birthdays, project status updates, suggested projects, and galaxy of the week are some examples of the blog’s regular features. There are the new projects that launch, the cool things the community find on Talk, and the awesome finds that just appear from seemingly nowhere. I love following this blog because it adds little bit of Zooniverse into my RSS feed each day. I often see things I didn’t know about myself!

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Congratulations to Grant on the blog’s birthday this week! Find the blog at daily.zooniverse.org or follow it via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and Tumblr.

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This Month’s edition of Wired (UK) includes a feature article about citizen science and crowdsourcing research. It has interviews with yours truly, as well as many lovely people from the citizen science crowd, including buddies Chris Lintott, Kevin Schawinski, and Amy Robinson.

It also has notes about my new collaboration with fellow TED Fellow Andrew Bastawrous and our plans to use the Zooniverse to help cure blindness around the world. As you can imagine I’m pretty psyched about that! You can watch Andrew’s great TED talk below for more about his work.

 

The article is written by João Medeiros and you can find it in Wired UK either physically or via their many digital apps. It will be online at a later date. The only correction I feel the need to state is that more than 400,000 people have taken part in Galaxy Zoo – not 4,000 as it says in the article!

The latest issue of Astronomy & Geophysics includes an article by your truly about the GitHub/.Astronomy Hack Day at the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth earlier this year.

The projects resulting from hack days are often prototypes, or proof-of-concept ideas that are meant to grow and expand later. Often they are simply written up and shared online for someone else to take on if they wish. This ethos of sharing and openness was evident at the NAM hack day, when people would periodically stand up and shout to the room, asking for anyone with skills in a particular area, or access to specific hardware.

Take a look here: http://astrogeo.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/4/4.15.full?keytype=ref&ijkey=kkvGWSg3ABbIy5S

Martian Nyan Cat

Martian Nyan Cat

I got into a conversation recently about how some astronomical photos can totally change your whole perspective of yourself and your place in the Universe. There’s several images that come to mind right away – here are my own favourites:

1. The Milky Way (from a very dark location)

Milky Way

Seeing the night sky from a dark site is something most people don’t do very often, now that most of us live in cities. The vision of the Milky Way overhead can be startling, and a pair of binoculars make it more so; revealing that its delicate structure is made of millions of stars. This long-exposure photo of the dust lanes in our galaxy [1] is our first image that can really change your perspective on yourself and your place in the cosmos.

2. Earthshine on a crescent moon

Young Crescent Moon with Earthshine

When the Moon is just a thin crescent in the evening sky you can often see the rest of its face, dimly lit, and slightly reddened. This part of the Moon is not being illuminated by the Sun, like the crescent shape itself, but rather by the reflection of light from the Earth where the Sun has not yet gone down over the horizon. You’re seeing other people’s daylight, bounced back at you from around the world [2][3].

3. Aurora and lightning from the ISS

Sometimes a change in perspective can be quite literal – as with this video of the Earth seen from the International Space Station. The green structures are aurora- the Northern Lights over Canada in this case. You can also catch the occasional flash of lightning. This time-lapse is haunting and shows you a view you could probably never otherwise see.

4. M31 compared to a full moon

m31abtpmoon

The Andromeda Galaxy is our nearest neighbouring galaxy and can be seen as a faint fuzzy patch in the Northern Sky. What is amazing though, is to realise that in fact it is quite a large object – bigger than our own Moon in our sky. Out eyes just don’t see it very well! Long-exposure images show just how big it really is. Combine this with the fact that it is 200 million light years away [4] and you begin to realise that the galaxy next door is truly enormous. It’s about the same shape, size, and type as our own Milky Way too. So we will look pretty similar to anyone looking up at the sky from a planet in the Andromeda galaxy.

5. Earth from Saturn (and other places)

PIA17172

There are perhaps no images quite as humbling and shifting as the set of images we would probably call the ‘pale blue dots’. These are the small set of mages of the Earth from far, far away taken by the robots we have sent out into the Solar System. Voyager 1 took one in 1990 from 4.7 billion light years away; Cassini has taken more than one from the Saturnian system (like the one above); a few have been taken from Mars too. All of them show the Earth as just a pixel or so across: encompassing all of humanity, the world, and all life as we know it into a teeny tiny speck against the cosmos.

6. Orion’s Proplyds

Orion_Nebula_proplyd_atlas

These dark blobs hidden within the star-forming complex of the Orion nebula are known as proplyds – or protoplanetary disks. These are embryonic solar systems in the making. Each of these blobs is far larger than our own Solar System (they get smaller as they evolve into spinning orbits) which gives you some idea as to how large the Orion Nebula is in total. We were once shrouded in such a dusty blob ourselves – though long before the Earth formed.

7. The Sloan Great Wall

SUTU_59

The largest surveys of galaxies reveal a structure in the Universe so vast that is practically beyond comprehension – but let’s try anyway shall we? The Sloan Great Wall is a filament of galaxies, snaking through the Universe that appear to be physically connected to each other – bound by gravity. The ‘wall’ is 1.38 billion light years across. That’s 1/67th of the observable Universe! When light is emitted on one side it doesn’t reach the other end for 1.38 billion years. It is 1,600 times a long as the distance between the Milky Way and Andromeda. I told you it was hard to imagine.

8. Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968

AS8-14-2383HR

I thought it would be good to end on something a little closer to home. On December 24th 1968 astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman were the voices heard on one of the most-watched television broadcast of all time. As they read passages from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, they broadcast a grainy image of the Earth, as seen from the orbit of the Moon. The world watched themselves from space for the first time, and saw the Earth as a singular marble, set against the deep black of space. The image has since been remastered and still represents an era, and a moment in human history, that many find totally perspective changing. A symbol of a race of beings from a tiny planet, venturing outward to explore space and the worlds beyond their own. Remarkable.


[1] I recently had my first go at some proper astrophotography from a dark site. My target was the Milky Way and the result was this image of the dust lanes of our galaxy toward the centre of the galaxy. I’m pretty happy with it for a first go.

[2] This effect can also be seen on other moons around other planets and is generically called ‘Planetshine‘.

[3] This also serves as a good reminder that there is a part of the Moon we never see – the far side – which is lit by the Sun, but just never seen from Earth.

[4] That distance gets smaller all the time, and Andromeda will actually collide with us in about 4 billion years.

publications

Executable papers are a cool idea in research [1]. You take a study, write it up as a paper and bundle together all your code, scripts and analysis in such a way that other people can take the ‘paper’ and run in themselves. This has three main attractive features, as I see it:

  1. It provides transparency for other researchers and allows everyone to run through your working to follow along step-by-step.
  2. It allows your peers to give you detailed feedback and ideas for improvements – or do the improvements themselves
  3. It allows others to take your work and try it out on their own data

The main problem is that these don’t really exist ‘in the wild’, and where they do they’re in bespoke formats even if they’re open source. iPython Notebook is a great way of doing something very much like an executable paper, for example. Another way would be to bundle up a virtual machine and share a disk image. Executable papers would allow for rapid-turnaround science to happen. For example, let’s imagine that you create a study and use some current data to form a theory or model. You do an analysis and create an executable paper. You store that paper in a library and the library periodically reruns the study when new data become available [2]. The library might be a university library server, or maybe it’s something like the arXiv, ePrints, or GitHub.

This is roughly what happens in some very competitive fields of science already – only with humans. Researchers write papers using simulated data and the instant they can access the anticipated data the import, run and publish. With observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) it is the case that several competing researchers are waiting to work on the data – and new data come sour very rarely. In fact that day after the Planck CMB data was released last year, there was a flurry of papers submitted to the arXiv. Those who got in early, likely had pre-written much of the work and simply ran their code as soon as they had downloaded and parsed new, published data.

If executable papers could be left alone to scan the literature for new, useful data then they could also look for new results from each other. A set of executable papers could work together, without planning, to create new hypotheses and new understanding of the world. Whilst one paper crunches new environmental data, processing it into a catalogue, another could use the new catalogue to update climate change models and even automatically publish significant changes or new potential impacts for the economy.

I should be possible to make predictions in executable papers and have them automatically check for certain observational data and automatically republish updated results. So one can imagine a topical astronomy example where the BICEP2 results would be automatically checked against any released Planck data and then create new publications when statistical tests are met. Someone should do this if they haven’t already. In this way, papers can continue to further, or verify, our understanding long after publication.

SKA Rendering (Wikimedia Commons)

SKA Rendering (Wikimedia Commons)

This is high-frequency science [3], akin to high-frequency trading, and it seems like an interesting approach to some upcoming data-flow issues in science. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) LSST, and Square Kilometre Array (SKA) are all huge scientific instruments set to explore new parts o the universe and gathering huge volumes of data to be analysed.

Even the deployment of Zooniverse-scale citizen science cannot get around the fact that instruments like the SKA will create volumes of data that we don’t know what to do with, at a pace we’ve never seen before. I wonder if executable papers, set to scour the SKA servers for new data, could alleviate part of the issue by automatically searching for theorised trends. The papers would be sourced by the whole community, and peer-reviewed as is done today, effectively crowdsourcing the hypotheses through publications. This cloud of interconnected, virtual researchers, would continuously generate analyses that could be verified by some second peer-review process; since one would expect a great deal of nonsense in such a setup.

When this came up at a meeting the other day, Kevin Page (OeRC) remarked that we might just be describing sensors. In a way he’s right – but these are software sensors, built on the platform and infrastructure of the scientific community. They’re more like advanced tools; a set of ghost researchers, left to think about an idea in perpetuity, in service of the community that created them.

I’ve no idea if I’m describing anything real here – of it’s just an expression of way of partially automating the process of science. The idea stuck with me and I found myself writing about it to flesh it out – thus here is a blog post – and wondering how to code something like it. Maybe you have a notion too. If so, get in touch!

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[1] But not a new one really. It did come up again at a recent Social Machines meeting though, hence this post.
[2] David De Roure outlined this idea quite casually in a meeting the other day, I’ve no ice air it’s his or just something he’s heard a lot and thought was quite cool.
[3] This phrasing isn’t mine, but as soon as I heard it, I loved it. The whole room got chatting about this very quickly so provenance was lost I’m afraid.