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UK Eclipse 2015 Photos

March 20, 2015 — 2 Comments

Partial Eclipse 9am

Today’s partial Solar eclipse is off to a great start here in Witney, where the cloud cover is working as a perfect solar filter.

Partial Eclipse

The eclipse culminated here as a smiling, Cheshire cat-style grin 🙂

Partial Eclipse Grin

One Week

March 2, 2015 — 1 Comment

Yesterday marked 5 years since I joined the Zooniverse team in Oxford, straight out of my PhD at Cardiff. It’s weird to say it but this week will be my final week here before I start a new role at Google, in London.

When I arrived at Zooniverse there were only two people here: Arfon Smith and Chris Lintott. Though there has always been a cloud of other researchers around the Zooniverse – they were the only only full time Zooniverse team. That changed a lot in the next 5 years!

The Zooniverse Team, May 2014

(Most of the) The Zooniverse Team, May 2014


I’ve never been one to fit in other peoples’ boxes, so Zooniverse suited me from the start. Unconventional, yet accessible; research, but not as we knew it. The Zooniverse has been a fantastic place to work. Indeed it still is. I’ve had the pleasure of building unique projects that have benefited astronomy and science. I’ve worked with remarkable researchers, developers, educators, and herders. It has been a lot of fun and I’ve been able to be part of its growth and evolution.

Over the years I have read many blogs and articles, usually written by someone leaving research, about how academia has a brain drain problem, or lacks a family-friendly environment, or can’t compete with industry. I have sometimes agreed, though usually quietly. Most of these pieces are dismissed by those left in academia, even if they are shared widely by them at the same time. I won’t be writing such a post Do I think academia is perfect? No. But no job suits everyone. Do I think that academia could do more for minorities, women, and families? Yes. But all jobs probably could. Being a postdoc has afforded me great flexibility with my time, and also given me the chance to travel and engage in awesome new ideas. It hasn’t given me stability though, and since I don’t want to be a professor, I’m not sure where it takes me as a career. I’d recommend it to everyone and noone at the same time. I’ve had a great time, but now it’s time to go. I’m terrified of course, but sometimes you have the make a giant leap when the opportunity presents itself.

Recycled Electrons and The Rewatch will both continue. The Rewatch will remain mostly unchanged, but you will hear less of me on Recycled Electrons – simply the result of time contraints. .Astronomy is also being taken care of, and I’ll blog about that separately. Rest assured though that #dotastro 7 and 8 are in hand.

It will be so sad to leave the Zooniverse, but I’m incredibly excited about Google. I’ll probably go quiet here for a while as I start my new job. I’m not gone though – just throwing myself into the new role, and meeting an exciting challenge head on. See you on the other side.

Another paper for the Milky Way Project. The Yellowballs began on the very first day of the Milky Way Project when a user asked me ‘what is this?’ and I wasn’t sure so jokingly called it a ‘#yellowball’, since that’s what is looked like. We use hashtags on, and that user, and a few others, went off and tagged hundreds of the things over the next few months. Before we knew it there was a catalogue of them. However, we still didn’t know what they really were, and so Grace Wolf-Chase, Charles Kerton, and other MWP collaborators have put a lot of effort into figuring it out. The result is this new paper.

The Milky Way Project Blog


There is a new Milky Way Project paper in the news today, concerning the #yellowballs that were found by Milky Way Project volunteers.

The Yellowballs appeared on the very first day of the Milky Way Project when user kirbyfood asked ‘what is this?’ and I wasn’t sure so jokingly called it a ‘#yellowball’, since that’s what is looked like. We use hashtags on, and that user, and many others, went off and tagged hundreds of the things over the next few months. Before we knew it there was a catalogue of nearly 1,000 of them. However, we still didn’t know what they really were, and so Grace Wolf-Chase, Charles Kerton, and other MWP collaborators have put a lot of effort into figuring it out. From the JPL press release:

So far, the volunteers have identified more than 900 of these compact yellow features. The next step for the researchers…

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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.


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.

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 or email me on 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 for more information.

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

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 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 (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…

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Screenshot 2014-09-04 10.33.03

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!

Yesterday was the Hack Day at the UK National Astronomy Meeting 2014 in Portsmouth. I organised it with my good friend Arfon Smith of GitHub, formerly Zooniverse. We wanted to try and start a new NAM tradition – it went well so maybe we did. I’m psyched that .Astronomy got to help make it happen – not just through my involvement, but the many .Astronomy alumni who attended!
Some of the hack projects have already started to appear online, such as Geert Barentsen, Jeremy Harwood, and Leigh Smith (Hertfordshire) who created a Martian Nyan Cat, which is planning to fly over the entirety of ESA’s Mars Express data archive in one continuous, two-day-long, flight. You also grab the code for Duncan Forgan’s beautiful ‘Music of the Spheres’ project, which sonifies the rhythms of planetary systems. Other projects are harder to place online, such as Jane Greaves’ knitted galaxy cluster – with dark matter contributed by many people during the hack day itself.

I spent much of the day working with Edward Gomez (LCOGT) on the littleBits Space Kit. littleBits is a modular system of circuits that let anyone try their hand at something that ordinarily requires a soldering iron. littleBits components may be switches, sensors, servos, or anything really, and they connect magnetically to create deceptively simple circuits that can be quite powerful.


For example you could connect an infrared sensor and an LED to make a device that flashes when you press buttons on your remote. Or you could use a microphone and a digital LCD display to create a sound meter. The littleBits components are sturdy enough to withstand being bashed about a bit, and simple, and large enough, to let you stick on cardboard, homemade figures, or anything else you find around the house. I found out about littleBits when I met their creator, Aya Bdier at TED in March. She is a fellow TED Fellow.

We decided fairly quickly to try and built an exoplanet simulator of some sort and ended up crating the littleBits Exoplanet Detector (and cup orrery). There were two parts to this: a cup-based orrery, and a transit detector.

The cup orrery consisted of a rotating ‘planetary system’ fashioned from a coffee cup mounted on a simple motor component – we only had hack day supplies to play with – and a central LED ‘star’. Some more cups and stirrers were required to scaffold the system into a stable state but it was soon working.

The transit detector used a light-sensor component that read out to both a speaker and a LCD numerical display – Ed refers to this as the laser display board. With a bit of shielding from the buffet’s handy, black, plastic plates the light sensor can easily pick up the LED and you can see the light intensity readout varying as the the paper planet passes in front of the star. It was awesome. We got very excited when it actually worked!

You might think that was geeky enough, but it gets better. I realised I could use my iPhone 5s – which has a high-frame-rate video mode – to record the model working in slow motion and allow us to better see the digital readout. We also realised that the littleBits speaker component can accept an audio jack and so could use the phone to feed in a pure tone, which made it much easier to hear the pulsing dips of the transits.

Finally, we had the idea to record this nice, tonal sound output from the detector and create waveforms to see if we could recover any properties about the exoplanets. And sure enough: we can! We built several different coffee-cup planetary systems (including a big planet, small planet, and twin planets) and their different properties are visible in their waveforms. Ed is planning a more rigorous exploration of this at a later date, but you can see and hear the large cup planet’s waveform below.

Waveform for Large Cup Planet

Waveform for Large Cup Planet

So if you want to try something like this, you only need the littleBits Space Kit. You can buy them online and I’d love to see more of these kits, and to see them in schools. I’m now totally addicted to the idea myself too!

GitHub Stickers

Thanks to Arfon for suggesting that we do this Hack Day together; to the NAM 2014 Portsmouth team for being so supportive; and to GitHub for sponsoring it – where else would we have gotten all the cups?!

Today is the start of the UK National Meeting in Portsmouth. I’ll be there tomorrow, and running the NAM Hack Day on Wednesday with Arfon Smith – which is going to be awesome. Today at NAM, the nation’s astronomers will discuss the case for UK involvement in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project – the LSST. The LSST is a huge telescope, and a massive undertaking. It will change astronomy in a profound way.

A photograph and a rendering mix of the exterior building showing the dome open and road leading away from the site.

A photograph and a rendering mix of the exterior LSST building, showing the dome open and road leading away from the site.

With every image it takes, the LSST will be able to record very a large patch of sky (~50 times the size of the full Moon). It will take more than 800 images each night and can image its* entire sky twice a week! Billions of galaxies, stars, and solar system objects will be seen for the first time and monitored over a period of 10 years. Crucially it will use it’s rapid-imaging power to look for moving or ‘transient’ things in the night sky. It will be an excellent tool for detecting supernova, asteroids, exoplanets and more of the things that move from night-to-night or week-to-week. For example, the LSST could be used to detect and track potentially hazardous asteroids that might impact the Earth. It will also help us understand dark energy – the mysterious force that seems to keep our universe expanding – by mapping the precise location of billions of galaxies.

I’ve recently become LSST:UK’s Public Data Coordinator – think ‘chief hacker’ if you prefer. The LSST’s unprecedented archive of data will be a resource we can tap into to create new kinds of public outreach tools, data visualisations, and citizen science. In recent years, we at the Zooniverse have pioneered citizen science investigations of data in astronomy**. The citizen science and amateur astronomy communities around the UK, and the world, will be able to access the amazing data that comes out of the LSST both through structure, Zooniverse-style projects but also in a more freeform manner. The potential for discovery will be on a scale we haven’t seen before. It’s very exciting.

The LSST is a public-private partnership and is led by the United States. The unique scientific opportunities presented by the LSST have led to the formation of a group of astronomers from more than 30 UK universities. We’ll be asking for funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to support UK participation in the project.

Spinnaker Tower from the Gosport Ferry

Spinnaker Tower from the Gosport Ferry

If you’re at NAM this week, then I’ve love to talk about LSST, hacking on data, and Zooniverse. On Wednesday you’ll find me in the Park Building, at the University of Portsmouth at the GitHub/.Astronomy NAM 2014 Hack Day. I’ll also be at the GitHub drink up on Tuesday night at The White Swan from 7pm – where you can enjoy some of the finest cask ales, draught beers and wines in Portsmouth – and GitHub are paying! More details at

* i.e. the sky visible from its location – not literally the entire sky
** We’ve now had more than 1 million volunteers pass through our digital doors.

New Zooniverse project goes live today and I warn you: it is highly addictive!



A few months ago we quietly placed a new project online. Called Sunspotter, it was essentially a game of hot-or-not for sunspot data – and since there were not many images available at the time, we thought it best to just let it be used by the people who noticed it, or who had tried it during the beta test. The results have since been validated, and the site works! In fact there are even preliminary results, which is all very exciting. Loads of new images have now been prepared, so today Sunspotter gets its proper debut. Try it at

On the site you are shown two images of sunspot groups and asked which is more complex. That might sound odd at first, but really it’s quite easy. The…

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