TED 2014 has just ended here in Vancouver and I have finally now experienced an event I’ve heard a lot about for many years. I’ve watched TED talks online for as long as I’ve watched anything online and the real deal did not disappoint. Attending TED for the first time has been intense, wonderful, and dizzying and it was great to be here for it’s special, 30th anniversary year. Highlights from my experience are difficult to streamline into a blog post. So this is my best shot.

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Each day at TED has presented numerous inspirational speakers and amazing ideas, curated into themes by the organisers such as ‘Liftoff!’, ‘Reshape’, ‘Hacked’, and ‘Onward’. These sessions took place in the event’s central venue; a custom-designed, wooden amphitheatre – built over only a few days before the event opened. These talks were usually 12 or 18 minutes long and sometimes formatted as interviews where relevant. The changing topics and formats were paced in a way that meant I rarely felt tired or restless – which is amazing since I’ve had about 5 hours sleep each night! You can already see some talks from these sessions including Colonel Chris Hadfield on conquering fear, and Edward Snowden on privacy - a talk delivered via a roving telepresence robot!

A secondary, slightly smaller venue housed the ‘All-Star’ sessions. These were totally packed-out as they consisted of many notable TED speakers from the past 30 years, each giving 4 minute talks to update or reflect on their work and ideas. Speakers here included a wide range of awesome folks such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Imogen Heap, Dan Gilbert, Jimmy Wales, Sir Martin Rees, and even General Stanley McChrystal. All of them had just 4 minutes, which kept the energy high, and the pace steady.

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I was very happy to see that some of the best talks of the week were about science. Ed Yong (Nat. Geo. blogger) told us about parasites, Sara Lewis (Tufts) about fireflies and Andy Connolly (U. Washington) about the future of astronomy. All extremely well-crafted and well-delivered talks about often complex topics. Hugh Herr’s (MIT Media Lab) outline of the future of bionics and prosthetic limbs was not just a tale of amazing science, but also included a live performance by a ballroom dancer who lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombings and can now dance again thanks to the help of his MIT lab. A perfectly ‘TED’ moment and a moving thing to witness.

There is also a special place in my heart for some of the technology speakers, including Margaret Gould Stewart, who talked about designing and changing Facebook and its impact on user behaviour; and Del Harvey who won everyone over with her sardonic delivery of a talk about managing the stranger side of Twitter. Keren Elazari delivered a moving lesson in why hackers may keep us all safe and keep governments honest – a talk that will be timely if posted quickly to TED.com, and which proves how refreshing and important it is to have women talk about tech. Something that is all too rare.

Supermodel Geena Rocero came out as transgender live on the TED stage; Mellody Hobson gave a challenging and optimistic talk on race; and Mark Ronson gave a talk/performance about remixing and reclaiming music – partly involving a live remixing of other TED talks within his own. It was pretty genius – though it may have been lost on a large chunk of the audience.

The average age of TED attendees is predictably quite high – and I think that must be part of the thinking behind the TED Fellows program – the whole reason I’m here with about 20 other folks from around the world. By supporting its growing Fellows community, TED is creating new connections and networks, but also injecting a chunk of people into the conference that otherwise would not be able to attend. As part of our participation, all the fellows give their own short talk at the opening of the event.

The prospect of giving my own 4 minute talk on Monday was a big part of my life leading up to the conference. 4 minutes is not a long time, and that fact seemed only to amplify the preparation required, and the intensity of my nerves. I felt shaky and sick as I walked into the lights on Monday morning, but once there, a strange calm fell upon me and I simply delivered my talk. My intense preparation suddenly seemed like a wise investment, and although I can’t say I relaxed, I definitely enjoyed it. Those 4 minutes flew by in the end.

I used my talk to highlight the wonderful work we do at the Zooniverse, and framed what we do in the context of ‘big data’ in science, and in discoveries that are waiting to be made if we allow the public access to our data. I think it went well, and I’ve certainly had many attendees and journalists ask me about in the days since. Not all the Fellows talks go online – but we’ll each get to see our own eventually. They edit them and send them out in the weeks and months to come.

The TED Fellows programme also provides coaching, mentorship, training and a bunch of other amazing experience and advice too. I can’t recommend it highly enough. A huge thank you goes to Tom Reilly, Shoham Arad, Sam Kelly, Corey Mohr, Patrick D’Arcy and the whole TED Fellows team. I’m so excited about the collaborations and ideas being generated between the group and what we can do in the future.

Giving the talk was unforgettable, and attending TED as been a dream come true. I am feeling motivated and inspired, but most importantly I’ve made lots of new connections and contacts for projects to work on in the near future. For now though we have one more engagement: a farewell dinner with the rest of the TED Fellows. Then it will be time to go back to Oxford and resume regularly scheduled programming. After .Astronomy I always get the .Astro blues and I can tell it will be the same for TED, but it is time to head home and see how I can take all these ideas and actually do something with them.

This was recorded at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London in February – it’s me summarising the Zooniverse for anyone out there that might like to try out our own brand of Citizen Science.

I was lucky enough to visit Norway last week. I lead a group chasing the aurora (as best you can in cloud!) over the top of Norway from Tromsø to the Russian border – and back again. We were on a boat. Being that my favourite photographer was with me, we got some great shots of icy Norway. We were also lucky enough to have Inger Carter with us, our local Norwegian guide, who is a bit of an aurora-photography expert too. Here are some photos of our trip.

 

This video is a time-lapse of images taken from a geostationary satellite. It shows a whole year of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun from 2010 to 2011. You can see the difference in illumination between the seasons created by the Earth’s tilt; the angle of the line between light and dark changes as we go around the Sun. This effect is caused by our axis of daily rotation being tilted by 23.5 degrees.

We are usually taught an approximate version of the truth when we learn about the Earth’s orbit. Most people are told that the Earth orbits the Sun like this:

Not Earth's Orbit

…however the orbit is not really circular, but slightly elliptical. It looks more like this:

Better Earth's Orbit

Not only is it slightly oval in shape, but it is also slightly off-centre. Our closest approach to the Sun each year is Perihelion (on the right of this image) and our farthest approach is Aphelion (on the left). Crucially though, the Earth is tilted in its own daily rotation by 23.5 degrees. This means that the North and South poles don’t line-up with the top-down view of thus image. So, sideways-on it looks like this:

Earth's Orbit Sideways

At around Perihelion (our closest approach to the Sun) the North Pole is pointing away from the Sun – actually it happens a couple of weeks before Perihelion. It is this effect that gives us our seasonal changes in temperature. When the North pole is pointed away from the Sun, as shown here, it means the Northern half of the Earth is receiving less energy from the Sun and so cools down and experiences more darkness. Six months later the Earth has moved around and now the North pole points more toward the Sun and thus it is the Southern Hemisphere that is darker and cools down.

Seasons in Earth's Orbit

It is not our distance from the Sun that determines the seasons, but our changing exposure to the Sun’s heat and light caused by our axial tilt. Our seasons are the result of the misalignment of our daily, North-South rotation compared with our yearly, Solar rotation. The darkest day is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere – usually around December 21st – at the same time the Southern Hemisphere has its longest day. Perihelion occurs in early January (it was Jan 4th in 2014) which means we are closest to the Sun when it is coldest in the Northern Hemisphere and we are farthest from the Sun when it is hottest in the Southern Hemisphere.

The change in our tilt drastically changes how much of the Sun’s energy we receive, as is shown in the following photos of the Earth from Space. You can see that in Europe, for example, our share of daylight changes a great deal over the year. For the same reason, if you go far enough North or South there are places where it is continuously day or night for weeks or months at a time.

The above, amazing images of the seasons come from the same source as the video at the top of this post. They were taken by a EUMETSAT Earth observation satellite. This is a geostationary satellite, meaning that it looks at the same part of the world all the time. It stares at Africa and here you can see the sequence of Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn in images taken at different times of the year:

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I’ve started a page with some links, facts and ideas for teachers, educators and anyone else that wants them. Quite often when I’m visiting schools, I throw lots of URLs around and talk about websites, books, etc that kids and teachers might like. Then I often forget to give them these URLs and tips. So now I’m putting them on a single page instead. Check it out here: http://orbitingfrog.com/astronomy-links-for-teachers/

Feel free to suggest additions to this page by contacting me online on via Twitter @orbitingfrog.

ttfnrob:

This was just too awesome!

Originally posted on Space Warps:

Since we were featured on the BBC’s Stargazing Live programme on Tuesday evening the project has been manic. We’ve now had almost 6 million classifications of images from tens of thousands of people. The team have been furiously working to extract your candidates from the data to be able to share them – live on the BBC – tonight.

As part of these efforts we have convinced several telescopes around the world to try and point at one particularly lovely candidate lens to see what we can learn in time for tonight’s show. Last night, Chris Lintott and Robert Simpson (who are at Jodrell for the show) went outside to capture the moment that the gigantic Lovell dish turned to look at your lens candidate.

Animation of Lovell moving to look at a Space Warps source.

Eventually the telescope did move and here is an animated GIF of it slewing toward a Space Warps source. We will report with more detail when we have…

View original 47 more words

This week is the BBC’s Stargazing Live show: three now-annual nights of live stargazing and astronomy chatter, live from Jodrell Bank. CBeebies are also getting in on the act this year, which I’m excited about. The Zooniverse are part of the show for the third year running and this time I have the pleasure of being here on set for the show. In 2012 the Zooniverse asked the Stargazing Live viewers to help us discover a planet with Planet Hunters, in 2013 we explored the surface of Mars with Planet Four. This year we are inviting everybody to use our Space Warps project to discover some of most beautiful and rare objects in the universe: gravitational lenses.

Space Warps asks everyone to help search through astronomical data that hasn’t been looked at by eye before, and try to find gravitational lenses deep in the universe. We launched the site in 2014 and for Stargazing Live we’re adding a whole new dataset of infrared images. Your odds of finding something amazing are pretty good, actually!

Gravitational lenses occur when a massive galaxy – or cluster of galaxies – pass in front of more distant objects. The enormous mass of the (relatively) closer object literally bends light around it and distorts the image of the distant source. Imagine holding up a magnifying glass and waving it around the night sky so that starlight is bent and warped by the lens. You can see more about this here on the ESO website.

We’ve been getting things ready all day and now I’m sitting here in the Green Room at Jodrell Bank  waiting for the show to begin. Stargazing Live is an exciting place to be and everyone is buzzing about the show! That Chris Lintott bloke from the telly is here, as is K9 is from Doctor Who – they both look excited.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Tower Hill School (in Witney) to talk about astronomy, space and science. The kids were brilliant and asked awesome questions as usual. For this visit I took the department’s infrared camera – which really was the star of the show. Before I took the camera to the classroom I tested it out at home. It’s amazing how you can spot every power adapter and leaky window so easily once you are viewing the world with thermal vision.

Here are a few shots from around the house – the colour palette varies but the temperature range is displayed on the right hand side.

It turns out that classrooms are full of awesome things to look at in infrared: mostly the kids! They were full of ideas and we soon came up with things to do that would be interesting or cool. They wanted to stand in bin bags, go outside (into the cold December weather) and come back in, and look for wifi routers and plugs. A second group of kids all held onto ice cubes and looked at the classroom heater. Here are some cool shots from the school visit.

Your local department may well have one of these cameras – or you can get one for about £2.5k – and they are excellent for inspiring the kids and getting across ideas about heat and light.

To see what the Universe looks like with infrared (and other) eyes try out Chromoscope. You could also take a look at the Hidden Universe podcast or even my own TEDxCardiff talk from 2010, which is embedded below too:

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Congratulations China! You just became the third country to land on, and explore, the surface of the Moon. It’s been almost 40 years since anyone else tried, which is remarkable itself really.

The craft that journeyed to the Moon is called Chang’e 3, named after a mythical lunar goddess in Chinese culture. The rover that landed today (and which took the above picture) is the solar-powered Yutu, or Jade Rabbit. It’s a mainly geological (geo?!) mission that will go on for about the next three months in the Sinus Iridum, the Bay of Rainbows.

Good luck Jade Rabbit – I hope you send us all some nice photos!

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Just over three years the Zooniverse launched the Milky Way Project (MWP), my first citizen science project. I have been leading the development and science of the MWP ever since. 50,000 volunteers have taken part from all over the world, and they’ve helped us do real science, including creating astronomy’s largest catalogue of infrared bubbles – which is pretty cool.

Today the original Milky Way Project (MWP) is complete. It took about three years and users have drawn more than 1,000,000 bubbles and several million other objects, including star clusters, green knots, and galaxies. It’s been a huge success but: there’s even more data! So it is with glee that we have announced the brand new Milky Way Project! It’s got more data, more objects to find, and it’s even more gorgeous.

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This second incarnation of my favourite Zooniverse project[1] has been an utterly different experience for me. Three years ago I had only recently learned how to build Ruby on Rails apps and had squirrelled myself away for hours carefully crafting the look and feel for my as-yet-unnamed citizen science project. I knew that it had to live up to the standards of Galaxy Zoo in both form and function – and that it had to produce science eventually.

Building and launching at that time was simpler in one sense (it was just me and Arfon that did most of the coding[2]) but so much harder as I was referring to the Rails manual constantly and learning Amazon Web Services on the fly. This week I have had the help of a team of experts at Zooniverse Chicago, who I normally collectively refer to as the development team. They have helped me by designing and building the website and also by integrating it seamlessly into the now buzzing Zooniverse infrastructure. The result has been an easier, smoother process with a far superior end result. I’ve essentially acted more like a consultant scientist, with a specification and requirements. I’ve still gotten my hands dirty (as you can see in the open source Milky Way Project GitHub repo) but I’ve managed to actually keep doing everything else I now to day-to-day at the Zooniverse. It’s been a fantastic experience to see personally how far we’ve come as an organisation.

The new MWP is being launched to include data from different regions of the galaxy in a new infrared wavelength combination. The new data consists of Spitzer/IRAC images from two surveys: Vela-Carina, which is essentially an extension of GLIMPSE covering Galactic longitudes 255°–295°, and GLIMPSE 3D, which extends GLIMPSE 1+2 to higher Galactic latitudes (at selected longitudes only). The images combine 3.6, 4.5, and 8.0 µm in the “classic” Spitzer/IRAC color scheme[3]. There are roughly 40,000 images to go through.

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An EGO (or two) sitting in the dust near a young star cluster

The latest Zooniverse tech and design is being brought to bear on this big data problem. We are using our newest features to retire images with nothing in them (as determined by the volunteers of course) and to give more screen time to those parts of the galaxy where there are lots of pillars, bubbles and clusters – as well as other things. We’re marking more objects -  bow shocks, pillars, EGOs  - and getting rid of some older ones that either aren’t visible in the new data or weren’t as scientifically useful as we’d hoped (specifically: red fuzzies and green knots).

It’s very exciting! I’d highly recommend that you go now(!) and start classifying at www.milkywayproject.org - we need your help to map and measure our galaxy.

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[1] It’s like choosing between your children

[2] Arfon may recall my resistance to unit tests

[3] Classic to very geeky infrared astronomers