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Screenshot 2014-09-09 16.20.32

I’ve been called a lot of things but ‘rebel’ hasn’t come up too often. Not that I mind. As part of a Mazda campaign, I’m being highlighted as one of four TED Fellows* who are ‘Mazda Rebels’. The other three are thoroughly impressive and I recommend you take a look. There’s an online vote where the pubic help chose whoever they think the deserves a Mazda grant to help their project.

My video can be found here. It’s lovely and I really enjoyed making it. It nicely describes my work with Zooniverse (special guest starring Brooke Simmons as a Snapshot Serengeti volunteer!) in a fun, accessible way. We had a laugh creating it, and they have kept many of the out-takes in the video, which I rather enjoyed.

If I win the vote then I’ll be using the money to kick-start the Zooniverse’s efforts in disaster relief with a ‘First Responders’ project. Think Milky Way Project but with aerial photos of recent disasters, with volunteers helping locate resources, danger, and people. This is something several of us at Zooniverse HQ are very keen on, and using the power of crowdsourcing in realtime after a disaster makes a lot of sense.

I highly recommend that you take a look at all four videos and vote for your favourite here:

* Applications are still open to become a 2015 TED Fellow – I can highly recommend it!

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.


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.


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, 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.

This was recorded at the Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London in February – it’s me summarising the Zooniverse for anyone out there that might like to try out our own brand of Citizen Science.

This video is a time-lapse of images taken from a geostationary satellite. It shows a whole year of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun from 2010 to 2011. You can see the difference in illumination between the seasons created by the Earth’s tilt; the angle of the line between light and dark changes as we go around the Sun. This effect is caused by our axis of daily rotation being tilted by 23.5 degrees.

We are usually taught an approximate version of the truth when we learn about the Earth’s orbit. Most people are told that the Earth orbits the Sun like this:

Not Earth's Orbit

…however the orbit is not really circular, but slightly elliptical. It looks more like this:

Better Earth's Orbit

Not only is it slightly oval in shape, but it is also slightly off-centre. Our closest approach to the Sun each year is Perihelion (on the right of this image) and our farthest approach is Aphelion (on the left). Crucially though, the Earth is tilted in its own daily rotation by 23.5 degrees. This means that the North and South poles don’t line-up with the top-down view of thus image. So, sideways-on it looks like this:

Earth's Orbit Sideways

At around Perihelion (our closest approach to the Sun) the North Pole is pointing away from the Sun – actually it happens a couple of weeks before Perihelion. It is this effect that gives us our seasonal changes in temperature. When the North pole is pointed away from the Sun, as shown here, it means the Northern half of the Earth is receiving less energy from the Sun and so cools down and experiences more darkness. Six months later the Earth has moved around and now the North pole points more toward the Sun and thus it is the Southern Hemisphere that is darker and cools down.

Seasons in Earth's Orbit

It is not our distance from the Sun that determines the seasons, but our changing exposure to the Sun’s heat and light caused by our axial tilt. Our seasons are the result of the misalignment of our daily, North-South rotation compared with our yearly, Solar rotation. The darkest day is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere – usually around December 21st – at the same time the Southern Hemisphere has its longest day. Perihelion occurs in early January (it was Jan 4th in 2014) which means we are closest to the Sun when it is coldest in the Northern Hemisphere and we are farthest from the Sun when it is hottest in the Southern Hemisphere.

The change in our tilt drastically changes how much of the Sun’s energy we receive, as is shown in the following photos of the Earth from Space. You can see that in Europe, for example, our share of daylight changes a great deal over the year. For the same reason, if you go far enough North or South there are places where it is continuously day or night for weeks or months at a time.

The above, amazing images of the seasons come from the same source as the video at the top of this post. They were taken by a EUMETSAT Earth observation satellite. This is a geostationary satellite, meaning that it looks at the same part of the world all the time. It stares at Africa and here you can see the sequence of Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn in images taken at different times of the year:

Plants aren’t something I know very much about, but I remember the concept of turgor pressure from my GCSEs. Plant cells absorb water a different way to the cells in our bodies because they contain ‘vacuoles’ which our cells don’t have. Plant cells also have cell walls, and as the vacuole absorbs more and more water, it presses against the cell wall and creates turgor pressure. This pressure keeps the plant upright – or ‘turgid’. This is how plants stand up and why they wilt without enough water.

This video shows my tomato plant on a very hot day, after I’ve watered it. I’ve noticed that it is able to rapidly recover its turgidity and ‘unwilt’ in a short time, once I’ve watered it of course. I made this timelapse yesterday, after another hot day here in the UK. It was set to capture a frame taken every 3 seconds and it’s played back at 24 fps.

[Read more about turgor pressure here]

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.

Thierry Legault does it again! Utterly incredible movie of the Space Shuttle Discovery as it approaches the International Space Station at 17,000mph. This movie was taken from the ground. [Direct link]