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On Top of the World

February 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

I’m currently on a trip around the Northern part of Norway to try and see the Northern Lights. This arctic cruise, organised by the Oxford Alumni office, sees me in the role of Trip Scholar. This means I give some talks, do some on-deck stargazing sessions and make myself available to answer questions about astronomy. Sounds good? It is.

Everyone here is pretty much after any glimpse they can get of the aurora. Cloudy conditions are forecast so people have been subdued. Our plane was charted by the tour operator and so everyone board was headed for the same ship, and the same trip. There was much aurora speculation.

We flew from London to Tromsø (and then got diverted to Bodø and flew to Tromsø again – thanks snow). We boarded our ship (see image above from Flickr user kubimedia) and we’re now making our merry way up and over the top of Norway. Today we visited the Nordkapp – the Northernmost part of mainland Europe and the most Northern town in the world, Honningsvåg (see image below). Tomorrow we head off to meet the Russian border.

I’m on this trip with my brother, and after dinner last night we decided to go and take a look around the ship. When we went up on the top deck we were astonished to see the aurora! They were just beginning to burst into bright green curtains over our heads, and gave us quite a show.

The aurora are caused by steams of charged particles ejected by the Sun and sent hurtling toward the North and South poles by the Earth’s magnetic field.

They were just beautiful. They move far quicker than I had thought and change in brightness regularly. They shifted and slithered across the sky directly over our heads. It was like being in the best seat at the theatre. Set against the backdrop of silhouetted Norwegian Fjords, it was unlike anything I’ve seen before.

They didn’t last long. We were treated to about ten minutes of bright, green activity and then the ship called into a small town and the lights made it hard to see much at all. They did briefly return but were shortly covered by clouds again. 

I hope we get more of the same, we have a few more nights to try. I’ll try and take pictures if they appear again. The forecast is getting better, and the Sun is active enough that if it is clear we have a good shot at another viewing. However, if the weather doesn’t cooperate I am happy to have seen them even once. Everyone else on deck said the same. As one anonymous person remarked in the darkness: “I’m on top of the world, literally”.

Science Hack Day Chicago

Science in Real Time

January 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

This past week has been busy thanks to some great media coverage for the Zooniverse, both online, on TV and at the big astronomy meeting in the USA last week (AAS in Austin, Texas).

You can read about the specific AAS science highlights on Chris’ Zooniverse blog post, and about the meeting itself from various other sources.  It features the most exciting pixel that Kevin Schawinksi has seen. Thanks to AAS, we also had a very positive write-up on the BBC News website about the Milky Way Project thanks to Eli Bressert, one of our MWP science team.

As part of the (hopefully) annual BBC Stargazing Live – three consecutive nights of live astronomy coverage on primetime UK telly – our Planet Hunters project has been getting a great deal of exposure.

Since its launch in December 2010, Planet Hunters has been very successful and has discovered planets!. It has also enthused tens of thousands of people about science and astronomy – and kept every at the Zoo very busy.

Planet Hunters uses public data from the NASA Kepler spacecraft, and this comes along in batches of ‘quarters’ of data. We were due to get access to a large chuck of several quarters of Kepler data at the beginning of the year and this coincided with the BBC Stargazing producers talking to us about ways to link in with their show. So the idea was born: tell LOTS of people to go hunt for planets just after we get a huge bundle of fresh new data – and maybe we could find a planet in real time.

I’m sure there there will soon be much analysis here at the Zooniverse after what has been our busiest few days ever. Swarms of new Planet Hunters have joined the site, analysing nearly 1,000,000 (at time of writing) stellar light curves from Kepler.

With every light curve volunteers are looking for the telltale ‘dip’ of a planet passing in front of the star. More than 100,000 people appear to have taken part – from all over the Uk and the world. They have cumulatively spent more than 2.5 years, in the past 48 hours, crunching through the numbers. Critically they use the human eye to look for the transits, which is highly complementary to the NASA Kepler team’s automated efforts.

Our sites are hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), and at Zooniverse Engineering (our Chicago HQ) the team have been on the ball, preventing the collapse of our servers and keeping the warp core on track. In fact we’ve only had a couple of minutes downtime during all this madness. This prompted the fantastic proclamation by Stuart Lynn, our resident Scot, that “she just canny do it, Captain!” when I called to see how things were. Perfect.

In our Oxford HQ, the the crew have been trying to find signs of exoplanets in all the hundreds of thousands of clicks, as they come in. Planet Hunters science team member Meg Schwamb has been over to keep an eye on progress and try to find the collection of clicks that signal the appearance of a new exoplanet in database that is growing faster than we can process it. A combination of jet lag and TV appearances have made this a heady couple of days.

So did we find any exoplanets? Well if you tune in to Stargazing Live tonight (BBC2, 8pm) then you’ll find out… in the meantime go an check out Planet Hunters.

Timeline

December 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

You can add all sorts of bizarre and specific ‘life events’ to Facebook with the new Timeline feature. These include ‘piercing’, ‘new vehicle’, ‘change of belief’ and ‘loss of a loved one’ – where creepily you can specify the person who died if they are on Facebook.

I can’t figure out if this future is a good or bad thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the future though.

11:11:11 on 11/11/11

November 11, 2011 — Leave a comment

Cool.

Planet Hunters Users Spotted ‘Tattooine’ Months Ago

PaperRater.org

Ancient History

September 12, 2011 — Leave a comment

Its almost a year since we moved to Witney, a few miles West of Oxford. Witney is a typical, Cotswold town in many ways, but that description doesn’t really do it justice. Witney is bustling with people and lively, small events. People here are chatty and friendly and very… well English, I suppose. It’s all that you’d expect from the safest Conservative seat in the country (it is David Cameron’s constituency).

The Witney Feast is currently taking place in the town. This festival dates back to 1243, when the town’s main church was rebuilt. It used to be all about celebrating St. Mary (for whom the church is named) and the community itself. In the modern era, the Feast has become a funfair, but the religious element remains having been incorporated into a new tradition of a sermon delivered onboard the fair’s carousel.

I love living in a town where history goes back so far. 1243 is just shortly after Wales was taken over by England. In the same decade, Oxford’s first college was founded and Europeans were just understanding lenses and gunpowder. It was rather a long time ago! To think that Witney existed then, as a community, is fascinating to me. Walking around Oxford I often have the sensation of history engulfing everything and I forget that at the other end of my commute lies an equally ancient place, that had somehow survived – much of it in tact – for almost 800 years.

[Image of Witney Blanket Hall from the Flickr photostream of the excellent John of Witney]

A-Level student Tim Buckman from Portsmouth Grammer School Has used Galaxy Zoo to find our own galaxy’s twin (see image below). He spent 6 weeks working with Karen Masters at Portsmouth University this summer through the Nuffield Science Bursery Scheme. You can read his blog post about it on the Galaxy Zoo Blog.

This galaxy is as close to our own as could be found amongst the hundreds of thousands of candidates in Galaxy Zoo. Tim filtered all of the galaxies in the set to only those barred-spirals with the same mass and number of arms as our galaxy, the Milky Way. Only nine galaxies matched all the criteria and this one looked the most like the current view of the Milky Way.

It’s hard not to wonder if there’s anyone looking back and thinking the same thing out there in this distance, island universe.

I had some Nuffield students this Summer too, and will be reporting on their progress as soon as possible. Well done Karen and Tim on a great result.

If you’ve been following the progress of my nephew Tal, there was big news from Saint Louis yesterday!

Tal (Taliesin) has been in the US for almost a month, undergoing spinal surgery and weeks of physiotherapy to reduce the effects of cerebral palsy. The procedure he has undergone is called Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy (SDR) and is a fascinating operation. To give him a chance to dramatically improve his life, Tal’s parents, Jon and Claire, began a campaign to raise more than £40,000 to get Tal to Saint Louis for the operation. They succeeded with the help of many family, friends and strangers.

Thanks to regularly updated blogs from Jon and Claire on Tal’s website – and from Marilyn, Tal’s grandma, on her blog – we have been able to watch Tal’s progress as it has happened. During the past few weeks of physio, Tal has gone from intensive care to scooting around in his chair to tentatively walking on sticks and now to confidently dashing around on them. In the past week we’ve seen Tal doing things that would have been unthinkable a few months ago, like climbing(!). It has regularly left us stunned and awed.

Yesterday, Taliesin had a follow-up appointment with Dr Park, the surgeon who developed still performs the SDR operation at the Saint Louis Children’s Hospital. According to Claire, Tal walked up up to Dr Park with his canes and said “thank you for making my feet all better” and gave him a big hug. Dr Park says that Tal’s prognosis is excellent. He thinks that Taliesin will probably walk independently within a year. I’m just going to say that again in bold caps in case it didn’t sink in: TALIESIN WILL PROBABLY WALK INDEPENDENTLY WITHIN A YEAR.

Once again, many thanks to everybody who has helped out with the campaign. It seems that with everybody’s help, Tal’s wish to change his naughty feet into good feet may have come true.