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Planet Four

January 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

Tonight is the start of the 2013 round of the wonderful BBC Stargazing Live. three nights of primetime astronomy programmes, hosted live from the iconic Jodrell Bank. Last year the Zooniverse asked the Stargazing Live viewers to find an exoplanet via Planet Hunters (and they did!). This year we want everyone to scour the surface of Mars on our brand new site: Planet Four.

Every Spring on Mars geysers of melting dry ice erupt through the planet’s ice cap and create ‘fans’ on the surface of the Red Planet. These fans can tell us a great deal about the climate and surface of Mars. Using amazing high-resolution imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) researchers have spent months manually marking and measuring the fans to try and create a wind map of the Martian surface, amongst other things. They’ve now teamed up with the Zooniverse to launch Planet Four, where everyone can help measure the fans and explore the surface of Mars.


The task on Planet Four is to find and mark ‘fans’, which usually spear as dark smudges on the Martian surface. These are temporary features and they tell you about the wind speed and direction on Mars as they were formed. They are created by CO2 geysers erupting through the surface as the temperature increases during Martian Spring. These geysers of rapidly sublimating material sweep along dust as they go, leaving behind a trail.


The fans are just one feature that you’ll see. The image above shows some great ‘spiders’, with frost around their edges. There’s lots to see, and hopefully the audience of Stargazing Live will help us blast through the data really quickly.

Stargazing Live begins at 8pm on BBC2. If you can’t watch it live then why not hop onto Twitter and follow the #bbcstargazing hashtag? You’ll also find me, Planet Four and the Zooniverse on Twitter as well.

.Astronomy Hack Day NYC

December 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

On Saturday, New York astronomy geeks will convene at the offices of for the first .Astronomy Hack Day! We do hack days as part of the main .Astronomy events and people have often asked us to do hack days outside of the main conference series. So when August Muench began saying he’d like to run such a thing in NYC it was very exciting. 

You can still sign up on Eventbrite (although you may be added to a waiting list at this point – the plan is to widen the event and then let the waiting list in.) If you’re part of the geek elite of astronomy then I highly recommend going along. It’s just for the day and just for fun.

Go and make something, create. Share ideas, and meet the astro geeks in your area. I know so many projects and working relationships that have come from Hack Days of all kinds – they can be really productive events.

I wish I could be there, but I can’t. So I’ll just have to rely on you all to go and make this .Astronomy Hack Day awesome. I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.

The Andromeda Project

December 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last week we launched a brand new Zooniverse site: The Andromeda Project. We’re asking people to spot star clusters in the Andromeda galaxy in data from the Hubble Space Telescope. You might think it sounds like menial work but it’s strangely addictive –  and incredibly useful for the researchers behind the data.

This project joins The Milky Way Project and Whale FM as a collection of Zooniverse sites that I have been a lead developer on. Amit Kapadia was the other lead for Andromeda and we’re pretty pleased with the result: check it out at

The Zooniverse strives to take so-called data deluge problems and turn them on their head, creating awesome websites where the public can do the grunt work – only it’s fun! Many Zooniverse projects take a task that would once have been done by a lowly grad student for months or years – and frees them up to do the more complex data reduction and analysis tasks. Spotting star clusters in Andromeda requires no special training – just a few examples and some enthusiasm. In this way we (the Zooniverse) try and crowdsource many problems, from classifying galaxies by their shape, to listening the bat calls. You can see all the current projects at

The Andromeda Project launched as part of the Zooniverse Advent Calendar, which began with our new publications page. This page shows the growing collection of peer-reviewed papers that result from Zooniverse volunteers clicking on our various sites. These papers are the whole point: all Zooniverse projects aim to produce real science results, offering the chance for anyone to be involved in science.

Andromeda is going well: with nearly 600,000 classifications performed already: a task that would have taken a researcher years! All this in less than a week. As I write this, the community of 8,000 users that has amassed around the project is currently classifiying images at a rate of 1 per second!

If you want to join in, take a look at

[Image Credit: Robert Gendler]

Over on this link, you’ll find a data-driven document (D3 FTW!) showing collaboration between the most authorship-intensive institutions in astronomy. The document is a chord diagram showing the strength of collaboration between research centres, based on co-authorship of papers.

I’ve included some screenshots here to give you the idea – the one above is for worldwide institutions between 2010 and July 2012.

This diagram is for UK institutions in 2011. Links between locations on the plot are not symmetric and are coloured to show the dominant partner. Strength of links are inversely proportional to the square root of author position so that the 1st authors counts for 1 point, 2nd author gets 1/√2, third get 1/√3 etc. This way I weight toward authors higher up on the list.

The data shown is for 125,000 geocoded papers from a total of 236,000 published by MNRAS, ApJ, AJ, A&A and PASP through to July 2012 (read about the mining here). 485,000 authorships are included, out of 820,000 in total. Data was geocoded based on author affiliation and grouped using the resultant lat/longs to 3 decimal places.

This plot, for worldwide institutions in 2011 is shown highlighting links between CEA Saclay and the other top publishing locations. You can play with many combinations of the data, displaying varying numbers of institutions from different parts of the world. Explore the data at

[This is same data I used to create collaboration maps in this previous post, and can be found here on Google Fusion tables.]

A couple of weeks ago I began to geocode the database of astronomical research I scraped from NASA ADS during .Astronomy 4. This database consists of all the published astronomical research in five major journals (almost 250,000 papers going back decades, from MNRAS, ApJ, AJ, A&A and PASP) up to July 2012. You can read more about that here and here.

Geocoding is the process by which latitude and longitude are derived from a sting of text, e.g. a street address. You use it all the time if you use Google Maps, Bing Maps, or whatever Yahoo call their maps (Yahoo Maps?). The recent débâcle over the failure of the iPhone’s mapping service mostly comes down to the fact that Apple’s geocoding capabilities are not up to scratch.

I’ve been using a Ruby Gem called Geocoder to obtain a latitude and longitude for the affiliations of authors in the astro-literature. Why? Well I thought it be interesting to see how astronomers around the world collaborate. The idea is that we can take those lists of co-authors and visualise how each university or research centre works with the others.

To do this I take a map of the world and every time two institutions work together on a paper I draw a link between them. I do this in R, which fun to try out, and there is a great guide at this site here. Each single line is drawn very faintly but you can see that they quickly build up. The result are maps like this one below:

Europe, 2005

This map shows only the connections between European nations and only in 2005. Those research centres that work most with others pop out fairly easily: Paris, Edinburgh, ESO/Max-Planck in Garching, Germany. Paris (Saclay) in particular is very strongly linked with many places in Europe. My home institution of Oxford can just be picked out in the very busy UK. You can easily make out many of the areas which were less involved in the astronomy-research community in 2005: Northwestern France, Norway and much of Eastern Europe.

On this map, big collaborations dominate. If there is a paper with ten different institutions represented then all ten of those institutions will be highlighted. One big collaboration would make a fairly complex web on its own. In 2009 the was a paper published by the LIGO consortium, involving more than 700 authors from a huge range of research centres around the world. This makes the 2009 plot for Europe, and virtually anywhere else, look quite busy.

The journals I’ve picked are large but they are only English-language. That’s because of my own bias, since I wouldn’t be able to check my working if I dealt with all the major journals from all languages. Also, I have no idea what journals exist for astronomers outside of the English-speaking world and I’m aware that English is fairly dominant in astronomy worldwide. You have to take this into account when looking at the maps.

In all these plots the intensity of the colour is normalised, such that the peak strength of connection is always set to be 100% opaque and it works down from there (linearly, if you’re still following). This means that where you see relatively bright arcs all over the map, it shows you that each place is collaborating with each other fairly evenly. When you see just a few bright arcs, it shows that those places work together a lot more relative to the others.

Here’s Europe changing slightly, over the last few years:

Europe, 2007Europe, 2008Europe, 2009Europe, 2010Europe, 2011

Lets look now at North America. Here is the plot for 2009:

USA, 2009

You can see a clear band of strong connections between California and the North-East of the country (roughly). There are also myriad other links drawm more faintly. Honolulu and Mauna Kea are clearly highlighted, jumping out from the Pacific – and of course this is no surprise since many major telescopes are to be found there.

Now let’s see how Europe and the USA link up. These are the two hubs of English-speaking astronomy. Here’s a plot showing links between all these places in 2008.

North Atlantic, 2008

The strength across the atlantic is very intense – just as strong as within: showing that an ocean’s gap between them has little effect in working terms for the USA and Europe. With astronomy this doesn’t surprise me. Many of the big telescopes are in the US for starters. But also, researchers go where the money is and will happily jump across the pond when needed. The global picture also reveals great collaborative efforts within astrophysics increase as the years go by.

World, 2011

I’ve made a set of these global and regional maps that can be found on Flickr.

The other approach is to highlight all the links to and from just one institution. Let’s take Oxford University, since it’s where I currently work:

Oxford, 2011

This is the map for 2010 and you can see that Oxford, as a major astronomy reseach centre, has links to a lot of places. More interestingly, you can also see how these connections weigh against each other. Oxford is no more tied to Europe than America and appears to collaborate across the UK fairly extensively.

If we use the same intensity scale and compare this to my former institution, Cardiff, in the same year:

Caridff, 2011

then we can see that the pattern is slightly different. Cardiff is less linked in general but has stronger connections to several locations, many European. This must be in large part due to the fact that several important instruments were built here, for Herschel and Planck. The instruments on these spacecraft, and the consortia that operate them, have been the source of a great deal of collaboration in the last few years. 2010 was a notable year for publications from those instruments.

Finally there are regions I know little about, but which appear to tell their own stories when I look at the maps. Take Australia, for example:

Oceania, 2010

This map of 2010 activity down under shows Sydney as the leading collaborator in the region. It also shows that New Zealand and Australia coperarte broadly in astronomy research. In East Asia in 2010 the map shows again that there are a variety of insititutions cooperating on papers, but that Tokyo appears to be a key hub in the community.

East Asia, 2010

You can find a whole array of maps on Flickr at In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the way these institutions work with others, and see who are the most collaborative in astronomy, and think about why that might be.

UPDATE: If you’re interested in exploring or downloading the data yourself, take a look at this Google Fusion table.