Archives For Oxford

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.

Line 1. Let’s start with ‘typical’ humans. The average human adult male is 1.75 metres tall – that’s 3.83 cubits or 5.74 feet. The average female is 1.62 metres – that’s 5.4 light-nanoseconds or 0.008 furlongs.

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You live on Earth (Sol d, perhaps?). This is an Earth-like planet in a Sun-like star system. The third planet of eight in a rich system, including a least one planet populated entirely by robots (Mars, perhaps?). Earth is 12,742 km in diameter and thus has a circumference of 40,000 km or roughly 25,000 miles. Humans live in a thin layer (~20km) around the surface called the troposphere. If the Earth was a beach ball then all life on Earth exists within just 1mm around the surface.

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Through many years of international effort we have managed to keep a ‘space’ station in orbit – just above this troposphere – 1cm above the beach ball. But not high enough up that it can totally avoid the atmosphere – the ISS has to constantly boost itself back up because of air drag. We have sent just 24 people out into deep space, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. All of then visited the Moon and the last ones returned in 1972: 42 years ago. They were all men, all white, and all American. We could do it again, we could do it better – but we chose not do so. (Mostly for political reasons IMHO.)

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Those astronauts visited the nearest body in space: the Moon – the second brightest thing in the sky . They were kind enough to return some photos to show us how teeny tiny we are, and how delicate out world really is. The Moon sits about a quarter of a million miles away (384,000 km). You could fit all the Solar System’s other planets in that gap.

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But that doesn’t include the Sun – the brightest thing in the sky. The Sun is truly huge. You can fit the Earth inside the Sun a million times. It has more than enough room for all the planets and then some. The Sun itself sits 93 million miles away – which means that light takes 8 minutes to reach us from the Sun. The Sun could have gone out 7.9 minutes ago and you’d only find out… now. Nope: we’re ok. For now.

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And yet we have flung robots into space and downloaded the images they have recorded. Sometimes we take extremely long-range selfies of a sort. Images of the Earth, of humanity reduced to a pixel or two. Here’s one from Mars, one from Saturn and one from out near the edge of the Solar System – taken by Voyager. These images collectively earn us the moniker ‘pale blue dot’. Out by Pluto, the Sun itself is has dimmed to look like an other stars. From Saturn, we are just a couple of pixels as seen by the Cassini probe:

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And truthfully, the Sun isn’t so special. In fact there are stars which make the Sun look even smaller than the Earth does here. VY Canis Major is staggeringly big – and could encompass the Sun 1,000,000,000 times. That’s a million trillion Earths. Oh and VY Canis Major isn’t even visible to the naked eye because it’s so far away that we can’t detect its photons without aid of telescopes or binoculars.

Which brings us to the Galaxy. The Sun is just one of hundred of billions of stars orbiting around the Milky Way. If the Sun was a blood cell then the Milky Way is the size of Europe. The Milky Way is staggeringly big also staggering diffuse – so much so that if you took two Milky Ways, and hit one with the other, then in all likelihood no two stars would collide. They would pass though each other like smoke.

In fact this will happen. The Andromeda galaxy – which is a lot like the Milky Way – is on a collision course with us. In about 4 billion years it will begin to merge with our galaxy in a spectacular collision. We see these happening elsewhere but the sheer scale of this vision in our own night sky makes me want to get a time machine and jump forward to see it happen. The Earth is unlikely to be affected by this, because of the lack of collisions – however our night sky will be spectacularly altered for hundred of billions of years. Makes you realise how dull it is right now. Just kidding!


But the Milky Way and Andromeda are just two out of hundred of billions of galaxies in the Universe. Gigantic stellar continents floating in a vast, void of almost nothing. Galaxies themselves form structures, and as we have looked deep into the cosmos we have seen one such structure: the Sloan Great Wall. A thick chain of galaxies, loosely bound to each other by gravity, stretching 1.4 billion light years across the Universe and about 1 billion light years from the Milky Way. It’s 1/60 of the Universe across. And yet there are even bigger thing out there.

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The largest known structure in the Universe is the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall. At 10 billion light years across, this huge filament of galaxies in 1/10 the size of the observable Universe. It’s 100,000 time the size of the Milky Way, and 70 million trillion times bigger than than the Sun. We don’t have a good picture of it, but we know it’s there. It’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger than the Earth, which is very much bigger than you. I refer you to line 1.

Help Count the Stars

January 1, 2015 — 1 Comment


Here’s a fun thing to do this January: help count the stars to see how dark the sky is near you. While you’re looking for Comet Lovejoy, take a moment to count some stars for a school project.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been helping A-Level student, and fellow Witney resident, Jesse Lawrence with a BSA Crest Award project. He opted to go for something with a local twist and has decided to map the quality of the dark skies around Witney. Now he’s embarked on the last phase of his project: crowdsourcing a dark sky map by recruiting volunteers (that’s you!).

It would be fantastic if you could add your own observations to the project. All you have to do is count the stars an fill in this form. For now, you need to be located in the Northern Hemisphere.

Although this began as a local project, the system is up and running and will work at scale so please fill in the form from anywhere – not just Witney.

You have to go out on a clear night and then report your location (your postcode or lat/long) along with the faintest star you can see in the Plough (or saucepan, or big dipper, in Ursa Major). You just need to use Jesse’s map on the online form at Find the faintest star that you can see from those marked with letters on the form. That helps identify the limit of brightness for your location. Repeats over several nights will help average a better result, as will multiple people observing from the same spot over time.

Screenshot 2015-01-02 21.23.12

The results appear on a live-updated map, which you can see at The more people that join in, the better the final map will be.

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:

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


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!


[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.

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.


We’re expanding the Zooniverse team in Oxford and we’re looking for web developers. You need to be able to work in Oxford (which is a lovely place to work) and you need to want to change the way science is done! There are four positions we need to fill:

Each of these roles has different responsibilities and there’s a range of skills that we’re after. We’re creating a core team of developers here in Oxford to work alongside our Chicago-based developers – but on different, new parts of the Zooniverse. You’ll not be building citizen science projects on a daily basis: instead these positions will mostly deal with infrastructure, pipelines and tools for citizen science. In my opinion it’s an amazing opportunity for any developers out there who love science. You will work within a team of about 10 people here in Oxford Astrophysics.

We’re really excited about the project that these people will be the core part of and I definitely encourage coder-type scientists and science-type coders to apply. The University is a great employer with a good pension scheme, mostly flexible hours and they’re very friendly towards families. We are a mixed group of developers, scientists and something in-between. Best of all, like the Zooniverse: we’re awesome.

So come, join us!


We recently posted news of a Planet Hunters planet discovered as part of a seven-planet system. Like all the Planet Hunters stars this is one seen in data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. Dubbed Kepler-90 this system is a peculiar microcosm of our own Solar System, with small (probably rocky) worlds in the middle, and larger (probably gaseous) worlds on the outside. The major different being that the outermost planet in this system is as far from the star as Earth is from the Sun. The other six planets in this system were already known about, but thanks to volunteers on Planet Hunters ( we now think that there are seven worlds circling this stars, which is just a little brighter than our Sun.

New PH Planet

To celebrate this fact I have created a model of the whole planetary system in Celestia, an awesome, cross-platform, open-source package that lets you explore space. You can download the Celestia files model directly here or watch the video below to be taken on a tour of Kepler-90 and it’s seven worlds.

In this video, I’ve given the newly discovered Planet Hunters candidate some fetching green rings – which we do not have any evidence for or against. Also keep in mind that we know very little about what most exoplanets look like, so we’ve used artistic license to give them all different appearances, often using the surface of what might be analogue worlds in our Solar System. Maybe you can spot some familiar surfaces amongst them!

This system has some great features that make it interesting. The outermost world is roughly the the size of Jupiter but orbits at almost exactly the Earth-Sun distance of 1AU. A Jupiter-like world in an Earth-like orbit has been seen before in Planet Hunters discoveries. The middle planet in this system is at the same distance from this star as Mercury is from our Sun, but is six times as large. The rest of the planets whizz around in even smaller orbits. This star is a little hotter than our Sun so they are pretty scorching places with surfaces temperatures in the hundreds of degrees – nearly a thousand for the innermost planets.

Inner System of KOI-351

The two innermost planets are roughly Earth sized and are really cool. The innermost one is 1.02x the diameter of Earth and the next is 1.18x. We assume that they are both rocky since they are so small. They orbit the star in just 7 days and 9 days respectively and are very close together. So close in fact that if you’re living on the inner, smaller planet then every few weeks, for about a week, the second planet appears in the sky about half the size of our full Moon.

Every year I see the rumour going round that Mars is going to be as big as the full moon. It will never happen for us – but on the tiny worlds circling Kepler-90, it happens all the time.

Update: The system used to be called KOI-351 but was given the name Kepler-90 just a day after this post went live. I have updated the name of the system in the text.

[Cross-posted on the Planet Hunters blog]

I’ve just hit ‘publish’ on the latest episode of Recycled Electrons, my (almost) weekly podcast with friend and Zooniverse colleague Chris Lintott. We started podcasting to ‘The Listener’ in September 2011. This was episode 87 – ‘Very Nice Equipment’ – and since it’s now two years that Chris and I have been producing this weekly dose of news, I’m feeling reflective.

The two-year podversary prompted me to check out our iTunes reviews and they’re marvellous! This one is a particular highlight because it sums up what I think we’re aiming for:

I find the discussion on this podcast to be both accessible to a non-expert, but not oversimplified to the point of “oh god, another Discover magazine-level discussion.” Its like science for scientists, without assumption that The Listener is a deep expert in the topic, other than having some background in science in general. Well done on science accessibility guys. – sfnm77 on iTunes

People sometimes ask how we have the time to do the podcast, but the truth is that it’s pretty easy. One reason that the podcast is still going after two years is that it was designed from the outset to be the lowest-effort it could be.

We use Tumblr and Dropbox (both free) and keep the website simple and structured. We try to keep recording, processing and uploading to a total of about an hour each week. We are lucky enough to have a free-to-use studio across the street from our offices thanks to the University of Oxford Press Office, and we use Audacity and GarageBand for editing (also free). We keep a rolling, weekly Google Doc of things we might discuss. Every week we try to find a time to record and then we just go for it. Note that this was episode 87 but it’s been going over 100 weeks, so we don’t always manage it, and that’s fine.

Before we started Chris was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough to talk about each week but I listen to enough podcasts where people talk at each constantly (TWiT, Back to Work, The Talk Show, etc) to know that there’s always more to say. Once Chris was in the studio, he was his usual self and time flew by. We can talk forever anyway, and so I just see Recycled Electrons as a slightly more formal version of our usual wittering. It’s ended up being a bit like listening in on the coffee time chat of astronomers at work, and I like that.

Recycled Electrons

It only took a few weeks to start getting tweets and Tumblr messages from The Listener with feedback. Sometimes it was about the audio quality or download link, but soon it was about topics for discussion and questions they always wanted answered. The power of podcasting was suddenly obvious and it has been fun to learn how to handle the sort of back-and-forth the medium provides.

It’s an excellent way of figuring out what does and doesn’t work in science communication. With a podcast as niche as ours, you really start to get a feel for the topics that general astronomy doesn’t hit on or discuss. Podcasting empowers the podcaster to go super-niche if they wish and I think we have done. We are able to talk about peer-reviewed research and not just headlines. We can talk about grants and telescopes and politics and the working lifestyle of our field. This felt a bit odd at first but it gets great feedback and was clearly something people wanted to hear.

It became apparent early on that lots of people listen to us in bed! It turns out that this isn’t just us, but rather bedtime listening may be a common podcast phenomenon (citation needed). I have to be honest and say that learning this totally changed the way I thought about the podcast. It suddenly felt far more intimate and it meant that I realised not everyone listens half-distracted on a bus or train. It also meant that they likely didn’t get to the end, so we started trying to wake them up.

Very entertaining podcast where Chris and Rob cover the latest astronomy and general science news mixed with funny banter and anecdotes. Warning, don’t listen to this in bed as they will usually try to wake you up halfway through the podcast. – H.Kramer on iTunes

We don’t rehearse – I hope that’s obvious – and we don’t normally edit. I once edited out a very loud cough. The only other edits I can recall were forced upon me. On one occasion the fire alarm went off and I really did my best to keep recording but had to edit eventually and another time a phone began ringing in the recording studio, that we didn’t even know was there, and one of the Press Office staff had to come and answer it.

We’ve had bad episodes and we are pretty harsh critics of our own work. We’ve had some great episodes too. Weirdly I’m having trouble coming up with any particularly good or bad episodes. The titles are all just quotes from the show and I rarely recall anything that’s been said once I’ve posted it online. I rarely listen to episodes unless I think they were particularly high/low quality and I rely on The Listener to let me know if the audio quality is a problem – and it was in the early days. In fact getting things wrong and being low-budget is, I hope, quite endearing.

Affable co-hosts Chris and Rob talk about the latest developments in astronomy and space news, while frequently digressing, getting things wrong, arguing, forgetting people’s names, ranting vociferously, and occasionally giving a running commentary on what they can see out of the window. One day all podcasts will be this good. – Keithlard on iTunes

So here’s to the last two years, which have been fun and informative and at the very least have meant that that the spiders in the Oxford University Press Office have had some company, even if they never say much when we’re recording.

At the end of the month I’m going to an event at MIT all about science communication and I hope to hear from others who are doing something a bit different. The web is such a wonderfully diverse place for talking about anything and with science there is so much to say. More please!

Join us at the Physics Department on Keble Road, near St. Giles in Oxford. From 2-10pm we’ll be manning stands, doing craft activities and answering questions. We’ll also be doing some remote observing throughout that time and there will be a planetarium continuously in operation too.

In our auditorium there are mini lectures (in groups of three) at 3pm, 5pm and 7pm. We’re be playing games – quiz show style – at 4pm and 8pm. At 9pm thee is a live debate about aliens. At 6pm you can catch me and Chris Lintott recording a live episode of Recycled Electrons (

We have a cafe and cool demonstrations throughout the day too. This is all FREE!

Queries can be emailed to or just tweet me @orbitingfrog