Archives For Travel

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.

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.

A recent APOD featured this beautiful video of the Northern Lights over Norway. The opening shot is almost exactly how I saw the aurora in 2012. The Sun is at the peak of its activity and therefore the likelihood of seeing aurora (at either pole) are increased at the moment.

Yesterday I toured the site of ITER, the nuclear fusion plant under construction near Cadarache, France. A multinational collaboration is pumping 150 billion Euros into this experimental fusion reactor, which aims to create 500 mega-watts of power, for every 50 that are pumped into.

ITER, which sort of means International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor but is actually just a nice, trans-national word, is an enormous project spanning generations. First conceived in the 1980s, the idea is to create mostly clean, virtually limitless energy through the process of fusing Hydrogen atoms together. This is a process we see at work in the universe in stars and it seems technologically feasible that with a lot of work we can reproduce the conditions on Earth and set ourselves free of not only a limited fossil fuel supply, but also of the cost of using those fuels long term (i.e. climate change).

ITER grew as a collaboration during the 1990s and the decision to locate the experimental plant in France was made early in this century. Europe currently funds the bulk of the project (45%) with Russia, Japan, Korea, the USA, China and India all participating in other major roles, currently they are building many of the reactor components.

The ITER fusion reactor at Cadarache is purely experimental, it will never be used to generate energy for the French grid. The site chosen was a 180 hectare forest and 90 hectares of it will remain as such, to surround the site and keep it looking green. The site is also somewhat seismically active, and earthquakes can occur here. The structure is being built to withstand a 7.2 Richter magnitude earthquake, though such an event has never been recorded in the area, with the biggest being. 6.1 quake over a hundred years ago. To accomplish this the whole site is being built atop 500 special columns, that allow the entire facility to pitch and bend during tremors. It is all very impressive.

ITER is due to be completed in 2020, at which point full-scale nuclear fusion experiments will begin. The reactor itself is a Tokamak: a donut-shaped ring of plasma, contained within intense magnetic fields. This plasma reaches temperatures of 150 million degrees (10 times as hot as the Sun!), and incredible pressure. Under such conditions it is believed that fusion can occur at large scales. Large is necessary in this game, and the aim of the project is to be able to output 10x as much energy as was input to the reactor. Such a multiple of energy return makes fusion a viable power source for the world, and in this case will mean transforming 50 mega-watts into 500.

After 25 years of experiments, the ITER project will be complete and a second reactor will be built, based on the results of the research done in Cadarache. This second reactor, DEMO, will be a functional power station and will lead the way for widespread nuclear fusion for the world.

If all goes according to plan it will have taken a little over a century for the dream of nuclear fusion to become a global reality.

Today, that dream is very much still under construction (see photo below). The place is mostly a levelled building site. A couple of the buildings have gone up, and the power grid is in place. It would be good to return and tour it again in a few years.

One amazing fact about ITER has stood out for me in particular: after the experiments are complete, the whole site will be deconstructed and the location will be turned back into forest.

This decision seemed utterly bizarre to me at first. After thinking about it though, I’m not sure how else you can responsibly plan for something as long term and large-scale as ITER. A century from now, it is hard to know if fusion will have turned out to be the best route to take and rather than leave our descendants with an ageing reactor to deal with, at least this plan means we leave things as we found them. Also, since the successor to ITER (DEMO) is part of the larger plan, it seems prudent to factor in the concept of cleaning up phase 1 as phase 2 ramps up. Perhaps this is how more big ideas should be planned? On the other hand, it seems ridiculous that the first industrial-scale fusion reactor will never be used for civil energy generation, and will not be kept for even the sake of history.

Learn more about ITER here and here.