Archives For science

.Astronomy 5: What’s Next?

September 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

The .Astronomy 5 Unphoto – Credit: Demitri Muna

As the fifth .Astronomy came to a close on Wednesday, I felt as I always do at the end of these meetings: tired, emotional and super-excited. It’s hard to explain the energy at these events. There is something almost magical in the air as the participants ‘click’ (usually about an hour in) and then begin talking, making and doing great work.

.Astronomy is about actually doing something. As Kelle Cruz and I remarked yesterday – we like ‘people that do shit’. At .Astronomy you feel that if someone has an idea we should just all try and make it happen. It could be the best thing ever, and failure is just a chance to learn. It’s not a common attitude in astronomy and it’s certainly difficult for many early-career people to think that way.

I’ve always been lucky. My PhD supervisor was very willing to let me try crazy things (he let me get distracted by creating .Astronomy for a start!). At the Zooniverse we have spent years now, just pushing code live and making new things. They’re not always perfect, but we learn every time and we have left a trail of marvellous creations on the way. Each new thing learns from the last.

We also absorb the ideas of others quickly, and encourage collaboration with new people. It’s this approach that led to the creations of some of our most interesting projects recently, such as Snapshot Serengeti, the Andromeda Project and Space Warps.

During his Keynote talk Tony Hey (Microsoft Research) showed a quote I’ve not seen before.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” – General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army

I think I might put this on my wall. It sums up perfectly how I see much of science and could easily be the motto of .Astronomy. Tony’s keynote was brilliant BTW and you can see it here. Tony spoke about the Fourth Paradigm and told the tale of how the availability of astronomical data led to the SDSS SkyServer, which sparked the creation of Galaxy Zoo, which sparked the Zooniverse. In a way, .Astronomy was partly sparked by Galaxy Zoo too.

The folks at .Astronomy have built many projects that embrace the web fully, with an ethos of sharing and participation. These projects are changing the way astronomy and outreach are done: Chromoscope, 365 Days of Astronomy, AstroBetter, Astropy, astro,js, and the Seamless Astronomy groups ‘Bones of the Milky Way‘ paper; there are more but these are excellent examples.

So after .Astronomy 5 I’m left wondering where to take it next in order to facilitate more of these projects. There were 40 hack day pitches at this year’s event. There were so many hack day reports the follow day (the 2-3 minute slots where people show off their results) that we had to over run into coffee and use up most of lunch time too. Many of those hacks will, I hope, soon be appearing on the .Astronomy blog when people have time to write them up. Some of them are already popping up on GitHub (e.g. d3po).

The other wonderful thing about the meeting was how it once again encouraged genuine debates and discussions that sound like they might actually lead to change. The unconference sessions on diversity in astronomy went beyond the usual format and did not fall in to the trap of collectively preaching to the choir. A document has been drafted with actionable ideas. I hope it is revisited soon. Similarly sessions of the future of academic publishing were not bogged-down in the usual complaints but actually became a real debate about practical things we could do differently.

There were also highly informative unconference sessions that would not have happened elsewhere; enthusiastic tutorials of Astropy, Authorea and the merits of combining noisy classifiers are all jumping to mind. These meetings organically emerge from the crowd at .Astronomy and they’re, interactive, productive, and brilliant.

So as I ponder on the future of .Astronomy (I’d love your thoughts) I’ll leave you with some of the wonderful video hacks that were produced at this year’s event. Don’t Call Me Colin is a song about a sad exoplanet from Niall Deacon, Emily Rice, Ruth Angus and others. There is also a timelapse of .Astronomy itself in action from Amanda Bauer.

Thank you to everybody who took part, gave their time to talk, help organise the event; and who followed along online. It was a great meeting and I’m already looking forward to the next one. Long live #dotastro!

That’s No Supermoon

June 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

The periodic mention of a ‘supermoon‘ in the news cycle is starting to annoy me. A supermoon is simply not that much bigger than any other Moon!  It’s apparently just perceptible but by no means would you call it ‘super’. Annoyingly though, observation of the so-called supermoon is wrapped up in another effect: the Moon Illusion. This means that people enthusiastically report seeing a really big Moon, but don’t realize that they would likely have thought it big on any other Full Moon night too.

So let me put my rant in some context. The term supermoon was coined by astrologer Richard Nolle about 30 years ago. It refers to a Full Moon or New Moon that occurs when the Moon is in the closest part of its orbit around the Earth. The Moon’s orbit is not perfectly circular and there is a closest point in every cycle (perigee) and a most-distant point too (apogee). At perigee the Moon is closer to the Earth by about 50,000 km (30,000 miles), which is enough to make the Moon appear slightly larger in the night sky. In fact it is about 1.1 times larger in it’s angular diameter on the sky. Expert Moon watchers can see a subtle difference but it’s pretty slight and hardly warrants the title of a ‘super’ moon.

The Moon's motion over one cycle.

The Moon going through one complete orbit as seen from the Earth.

This animated GIF shows a Moon going through one entire orbit (apogee-perigee-apogee) and you can see the changing size (you can also see it undergoing libration, which is the wobbling motion). You can a direct size comparison below. In both these cases you’re seeing it close-up – imaging these things hanging in the sky at a distance. The size change is happening in every cycle, but is most prominent when the Full Moon coincides with perigee, as was the case this week.

Size Comparison for the Moon at Apogee and Perigee

Size Comparison for the Moon at Apogee and Perigee [Source:

So there is a difference in the appearance of the Moon but it is very small and you’re unlikely to be seeing this when you go outside to look at a supermoon. What you’re actually experiencing is most likely the Moon Illusion: the optical illusion that the Moon looks larger when it is near the horizon than when it is high in the sky. The Moon Illusion is not well understood but most astronomers are very familiar with it. It may be partially caused by the Ebbinghaus illusion, which is the one that makes the two central circles in the following image appear to be different sizes when they are, of course, the same. When close to the horizon the Moon is compared to objects like rooftops, hills and clouds. When high in the sky is mostly seen in wide-open space. Another explanation may lie in the processes that govern our binocular vision; it might be that the Moon Illusion does not occur of you stand on your head, for example. This has not (yet) been tested widely.

Ebbinghaus Illusion

So what happened over the weekend was that people heard about a supermoon and so went outside to see it. Given that it any observable supermoon is a Full Moon, this means people went out to see it when it was low down in the sky, because Full Moon’s rise late in the evening. Thus they probably experienced the Moon Illusion and reported that indeed the Moon looked very large.

On a final point: the supermoon is also given silly superpowers by some new outlets too. The natural oscillation of the Moon’s distance does indeed affect tides a little, but it does not cause earthquakes, madness or werewolves.

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 was at RAL today, as part of a teacher training event run by the National Space Academy, to talk about the Zooniverse and how our projects can be used to teach astronomy, science and maths.

I gave an overview of the Zooniverse, and then highlighted ZooTeach, the dedicated website where teachers and educators can create and share lesson plans, centred around the Zooniverse citizen science websites.

ZooTeach is great and will only get better as more teachers know about it and use it. Check it out at and follow on Twitter at @ZooTeach.

During our Stargazing Oxford event on January 12th we had three sets of mini-lectures. These are short, concise talks about astrophysics that anyone should get something out of. There’s galaxies, planets, cosmology and more.

I’ll be blogging links to some of these in the next few days.

You can find the current set of talks on our site at or on iTunes U.

Unproceedings of .Astronomy 4

New direct image of a massive planet around another star (arXiv 1211.3744)

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.

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

The Apollo astronauts narrowly avoided serious health problems, and even death due to exposure to radiation from the Sun. Here’s a plot of the approximate Solar proton flux during the Apollo era:

Here’s the same but with the missions and health warnings labelled:

Scary stuff! I made these images for a talk I gave a while ago, inspired by @DrChrisDavis and using data from WOTM. Just found them and thought I might as well post them up.