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So… I’m a TED Fellow

November 19, 2013 — 2 Comments


I’m happy to announce that I am one of the 2014 TED Fellows. It’s a fantastic opportunity and an awesome group to be a part of – you can see everyone else in the class on the TED Fellow blog. It an exciting time to join the TED crowd as TED is celebrating its 30th year, which includes a move to Vancouver and the theme of ‘the next chapter’. So I don’t just get to go to TED but new TED. Good stuff. I have been welcomed into the club by several TEDsters already – what a great group.

I’m hoping to meet amazing people, learn about ambitious, crazy projects and just be inspired.

Astronomy in Everyday Life

November 6, 2013 — 3 Comments

Astronomers are sometimes asked to defend public funding of their work. It’s difficult to answer because I really do think that there are lots of things we should do just because they’re interesting and enriching and that science shouldn’t be limited be what is economically beneficial. That said, astronomy is often given an easy ride because it is pretty and we have people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain on our side. One approach is talk about how much useful stuff astronomy has produced.

When you look around your life – and your house – you’d be surprised at how much is connected to astronomy and space exploration. Assuming you’re like me (i.e. living in the UK in 2013) you probably own several pieces of space-based technology. For a start you most likely use WiFi – in fact you might be reading this via WiFi right now! WiFi is based on work by John O’Sullivan working at CSIRO in Australia. The WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) provided by your router results from technology developed by Radio Astronomers in Australia, More than a billion people are using it in 2013!


There’s also your GPS device. GPS determines your position by receiving the signals given off by a network of satellites orbiting the Earth. By comparing the time delay in the arrival of the different signals, the GPS chip can figure out its exact latitude and longitude to within about 10m. The GPS system not only involves satellites but each of those satellites houses an atomic clock and must incorporate Einstein’s equations for general relativity in order to know its position precisely [1]. It might be the most space-aged thing you own!

There’s a small chance that you sleep on a Memory Foam mattress or pillow. Memory Foam was created by NASA in 1966 (in fact it was created by people being contracted by NASA) to develop a way to better cushion and secure people going in to space [3]. Similarly iodine water filters derive from NASA work in the 1970s to create safe drinking water on long missions and scratch-resistant glass coatings were created to create better visors for astronauts.

Memory Foam

Contrary to popular belief, Teflon (the non-stick courting on saucepans) was not invented by NASA for the Apollo programme. In fact, it already existed and was simply used by NASA, who may have helped popularise it in industry at the time. I’ll also not mention CCDs here, since I’m no longer sure that astronomy had much to do with their success! [2].

Outside of your home, there are many other places where the technology results from space research. There is a great deal of medical tech that comes from space exploration, which shouldn’t be surprising given that both fields are often trying to see or detect things in tricky or unusual environments. Software for detecting things in satellite imagery is being applied in medicine, including to detect the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in brain scan data. The detection of breast cancer tumours was vastly improved by techniques in radio astronomy and instruments than began as ways to delicately monitor the temperature of fragile telescope instruments is being used in neonatal care today. At the airport the X-Ray scanner uses tech derived from X-Ray telescopes [4] and they may sometimes check your bag or coat for traces of certain chemicals by placing it in a gas-chromatograph which was originally designed for a Mars mission [4].

Astronomers are often also coders and software developers. As well being responsible for the 2008 banking fiasco (I’m joking, maybe) they are also good at creating software that others find very handy. The visualisation software IDL is many astronomers’ language of choice and was developed developed in the 1970s at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder [5]. IDL is used in lots of research today in areas including defence, climate monitoring and by companies like Texaco, BP, and General Motors [6].


All of this is just the practical, modern stuff. Let’s not forget another thing you hold very dear: time itself. The calendar, especially it’s handy monthly segments, are astronomical in origin. The second, which seems so commonplace (i.e. it happens all the time) was defined in terms of the Earth’s rotation until astronomers realised that the length of a day was changing and so suggested a switch to defining it in terms of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Then we realised using an atomic clock would make more sense and handed our time-deiing powers over to the particle physicists [7].

Finally I just want to say that yesterday a paper appeared on the arXiv titled ‘Why is Astronomy Important?’ and it prompted me to finished this blog post about astronomy in everyday life, which I’ve had kicking around for ages. A big thanks to Marissa Rosenberg, Pedro Russo, Georgia Bladon, and Lars Lindberg Christensen for their timely paper – and their handy references!

UPDATE: There are also two handy booklets on this topic from the Royal Astronomical Society, you can find them here and here.


  2. If you’re in to digital photography then you may have debated the benefits of the CMOS and CCD imaging technologies. All digital cameras, camera phones and webcams use one of these two types of tech. CCDs were developed in 1969 at Bell Labs (the 2009 Nobel Prize was awarded to its inventors Smith and Boyle) and they became very popular in astronomy. CCDs are said to have popularised by their use in the Hubble Space Telescope but I’m not sure I buy it and can’t find evidence for it.

A new journal begins today, Astronomy and Computing, covering the intersection of astronomy, computer science and information technology.

This journal is desperately needed in my view and I wish it every success. The timing is interesting as many people at the intersection of these research areas are skeptical of old-style journals and the current state of publishing in general. However, I look forward to reading it and maybe even submitting articles.

You’ll find it at

Image Credit: Jack Newton

Image Credit: Jack Newton

There’s a cool paper on arXiv today in which an intrepid band of astronomers (I assume they were/are intrepid) search for exoplanets around the stars in the Pleiades using Subaru. Spoiler alert: they don’t find any! However, it’s an interesting look at how to hunt for planets and small/faint objects in general.

They find 13 potential planet candidates around 9 stars. 5 of these were confirmed as background stars and two more are dismissed because they either didn’t appear in all data or the data that did appear in wasn’t good enough. Two more were found to be known brown dwarves, with masses 60x the size of Jupiter. The remaining 4 candidates still await further data to confirm their motion across the sky – but aren’t though to be planets either.

By not detecting any planets with a very sensitive instrument they are able to estimate an upper-limit for the frequency of such planets around stars in the Pleiades. So by not finding planets, they learn something really interesting. Well done, science.

The response my previous blog post about gender bias took me by surprise. Apparently if you talk about this stuff openly, people have a lot to say. More than 500 people have read the post on this site and more over at the Women in Astronomy blog.

After posting it, I also emailed the upcoming .Astronomy 5 attendees and offered everyone (men and women) a second shot at sending in a talk abstract. As many men as women sent me an abstract in the following few days – come on: that’s kinda funny, right? The result is that I believe we can now create a more equal speaking line-up for September’s event, and I’ll be inviting speakers soon*.

I’ve also had a lot of feedback from Twitter, Facebook and other places, with stories of both very different and similar experiences. Many people seem to think that .Astronomy is unusual and that may put women off more than men. I find that hard to believe, but I’m willing to consider it. Mainly, people wanted to know how the sign-up form was worded, so here it is:

I don’t see anything here that one would consider biased. I can’t say the same for the .Astronomy sign-up form that Chris Beaumont  found in this tweet.

It’s been suggested that I ask the women who didn’t sign up, why they didn’t. Honestly I’m not comfortable doing that – but if any of them want to volunteer a response that would be interesting. I’m also not sure that anyone can really even be aware of the things that may bias them toward submitting a talk abstract (or not) when they fill out a form.

Finally (for this update) I’ll point you to a very interesting URL that several people shared with me this week: the AAS Committee on the Status of Women’s page detailing the ‘Percentages of Conference Invited Speakers Who Are Women‘. It shows that .Astronomy is not so unusual and that astronomy is very much still male-dominated. Are we surprised? No. Can we change this? Yes. The question is: how? That’s what I’m going to be asking a lot when we create the sign-up form for .Astronomy 6.

I’m really pleased with how this has turned out, and look forward to a more balanced and awesome .Astronomy 5 in September. I really appreciate everyone’s feedback and I think this conversation will keep going – so I’ll posts updates if necessary.

*Hurray for blogging!

I (or rather my computer) spent most of this morning geocoding the database of astronomical papers that I scraped from NASA ADS a while back. I’ve got about a quarter of a million papers, covering several of the major astronomical journals (MNRAS, ApJ, A&A, PASP and AJ) back to their first publications. There are 7 million citations and 900,000 authorships in the database.

I want to geocode the affiliations listed in those authorships, in order to explore the relationships between different institutes. Geocoding is the process of finding the latitude and longitude coordinates for a place given the address. Authors of papers give their institute’s address but they write them very inconsistently. By geocoding them down to a lat/long pair its easier to normalise the data and get a better feel for when two affiliations are the same place.. The other day I found a Ruby gem called Geocoder that does exactly what I want and so I set about trying to avidly avoid Google’s API rate limit.

Those 900,000 authorships (individual authors on each paper) come from about 70,000 unique affiliations, of which 50,000 appear to parseable as a potential address. Each one takes a second to be geocoded to it could take a while to do them all. I had the sense to start with the most-affiliated addresses and work down though, so in fact I already have 230,000 of those 900,000 authorships covered.

So far the fifteen most authorship-rich institutes are:

  1. Harvard (9576, 4.16%)
  2. Johns Hopkins University (6076, 2.64%)
  3. Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge (5191, 2.26%)
  4. Universität Bonn (4468, 1.94%)
  5. CalTech (4442, 1.93%)
  6. Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik, Garching (4311, 1.87%)
  7. Tucson, Arizona (3452, 1.50%)
  8. ESO, Garching (3409, 1.48%)
  9. NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center (3342, 1.45%)
  10. Durham University (2643, 1.15%)
  11. MIT (2136, 0.93%)
  12. Paris, Observatoire (2125, 0.92%)
  13. Big Bear Solar Observatory, Pasadena (2030, 0.88%)
  14. California Univ., Berkeley (1878, 0.82%)
  15. Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg (1878, 0.82%)

These aren’t the ones that publish the most papers, but rather the centres that have put out the most cumulative author-credits. I’ve not normalised for date either. For all I know Harvard just published one 9,576 author paper, for example (FACT: they didn’t).

The other thing I realised as soon as they started to come in was that I can now see which research centres have the most awkward names. ESO Garching, for example, has been written in at least 15 different ways in the data I’ve gone through so far (see list at the end). It however does have a lot of papers, so you’d expect variations to arise.

Another inconsistently named centre is the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. With several sub departments and multiple ways to write its name, it appears have more than 44 variations in the way it is credited!

If we consider only the locations with more than 5 address variants, and normalise to the total number of author-credits we get the following top-ten list of institutions with inconsistently written affiliations. These are the institutions where the number of different names are highest compared to the number of times it appears in total.

  1. University of California Berkeley, USA
  2. CalTech, USA
  3. INAF – IASF Bologna, Italy
  4. Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, CSIC, Granada, Spain
  5. Department of Astronomy, Kyoto University, Japan
  6. Universität Bonn, Germany
  7. Instituut voor Sterrenkunde, Leuven, Belgium
  8. Universitäts-Sternwarte München, Germany
  9. Department of Applied Mathematics, The University of Leeds, UK
  10. Yale University, USA
Should this be a worry? I suppose many research centres have ‘defined’ names that everyone should be using, but no one is doing so (or at least no one is checking). I know that here in Oxford there is everyday discrepancy between ‘Oxford University’ and the ‘University of Oxford’ and that is just the start of these things.
In the world of big data, geographical information is very important. Big data is also often reliant on the once-typed or written words of human beings. (e.g. If academic researchers cannot credit their institutes consistently then presumably no one is typing the addresses of many places correctly. Perhaps research papers should be encoded with co-ordinates? Either way, geocoding is a very important tool in an era of big, personal data.
Once I have more of the ADS data geocoded, there is more that can be done here.


List of variations for affiliation credits to ESO, Garching:

  • ESO, Garching bei München, Germany
  • ESO, Karl-Schwarzschild-Str. 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • ESO, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • ESO, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2, D-85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, D-85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl Schwarzschild Strasse 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Str. 2, 85748 Garching b. München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Str. 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Str. 2, 85748 Garching, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-str. 2, 85748, Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Str. 2, D-85748 Garching bei Munchen, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Strasse 2, D-85748 Garching bei München, Germany
  • European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschildstr. 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany

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