Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Top 5 Under 40 in Australian Science

I'm very proud to announce that I'm a finalist for the Top 5 Under 40 in australian science! As part of the program, I'll attend a workshop this Thursday and Friday to get media production and science communication training, and then pitch an idea for a radio program to the panel of judges. eek! also, woohoo!

This initiative is supported by UNSW and ABC Radio National to mark 40 years of The Science Show. The winners - the ‘Top 5’ - will be announced on The Science Show on 7 March.  fingers crossed!





Friday, February 20, 2015

Observing Galaxies with SAMI

I've been out at Siding Spring Observatory for the last week observing galaxies for the SAMI survey with the 4-metre Angle-Australian Telescope (AAT).  Here's the story. 

arrive at siding spring observatory and hope to see crisp blue skies above the telescope dome.


check the instrument hardware



plug the optical fibres into SAMI field plates.  each of the silver ones will look at individual galaxies. the orange ones look at sky. 



hope that you get to go for a ride with SAMI at prime focus (spot the astronomer!)



take a walk around the catwalk to enjoy the view of the warrumbungles and check the sky


get comfortable in the control room, where you will spend most of you waking hours for the next many nights. (there are a lot of monitors around!)


check the software to make sure it works (SAMI uses python mostly)



check software that talks to the instrument (SAMI) on the telescope



take some calibration frames and look at the raw data to check that it looks ok.



once the sky is dark and the stars are shining in the all-sky camera, focus the telescope and start collecting photons!



enjoy seeing those squiggles in SAMI raw data - gas in a distant galaxy! Each horizontal line is a single spectrum ("rainbow fingerprint") from a different place across the face of a galaxy. The very bright white streaks are cosmic rays, while the vertical dotted lines are glowing gas in Earth's atmosphere. squiggles show gas doppler shifted as it swirls around the center of the galaxy far, far away.


a quick reduction of SAMI galaxy data! each bundle on the right covers a single galaxy and has 61 individual optical fibres looking at a different spots across each galaxy. the left shows a quick reduction of the spectra collected from the light in each fiber. the squiggly lines show gas emission in the galaxy (hydrogen, nitrogen and silicon here). a single exposure points at 13 galaxies for a total of 800 spectra!


replug the fibres in the SAMI field plate in the spooky light of the middle of the night.


start to get goofy in the wee hours of morning by noticing you blend in with the couch.


and again the next night, unintentionally!


take a walk around the mountain during the days to get some sun and enjoy the views!


adding it all up, this observing run was 5 nights long, during which we collected new data for 84 galaxies!  that means we have 5,124 individual spectra.  woohoo!

the SAMI run continues for another five nights, but my shift is finished and i drive back to sydney tomorrow.  time to get back on a day schedule. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

rainbow fingerprints

i'm pleased to finally be able to share with you a project i've been working on for a while!

a lot of my research depends on collecting spectra, as opposed to pretty pictures, of distant galaxies.

every astronomical object has a unique spectrum, or “rainbow fingerprint”, that allows you to determine its contents, age, formation history, movements through space, temperature and more!

this video follows starlight from the distant cosmos as it hits the primary mirror of the 4-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) and is guided along the inside of optical fibres.  the optical fibres feed the starlight to the spectrograph, which is a series of special optics, including an advanced type of prism, and separates the light into its rainbow spectrum.



the separated light is focussed onto the CCD detector (like the one in your phone, but bigger, more sensitive, and more expensive!).

the end of the video shows actual data from the AAOmega spectrograph.  each horizontal line represents single astronomical objects - in this case galaxies.  the short, bright streaks shooting in any direction are caused by cosmic rays, which zoom through our bodies and the Earth all the time!  At last, the video reveals the final science quality spectra for two different types of galaxies, one spiral and one elliptical.

hope you enjoy!


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

timelapse of the sun

An AMAZING timelapse video of our Sun, our star, made of 5 years worth of high resolution images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Wow!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

the sirens of titan

i recently finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's second novel, The Sirens of Titan.  overall, an enjoyable read. i like how vonnegut plays with words and patterns and patterns of words so nonchalantly.  it feels like an efficiently written story, deceivingly simple, yet so much happens throughout!

Saturn's largest moon, Titan (Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) 
it seems fitting that just as i finish reading this book, NASA published a new video, Approaching Titan a Billion Times Closer, in honor of the Huygens probe touching down on Titan, ten years ago this month!

titan is saturn's largest moon and the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere. the video shows a collection of images taken by the cassini spacecraft and then images from huygens, as it fell down to the surface of titan in 2005.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

1000 years of comets and meteors!

speaking of open access, i found this great site, the public domain review: a project of the open knowledge foundation.

on that site there is a collection called flowers of the sky which shows historic depictions of comets, meteors, and meteorites over almost a 1000 year period. very neat!  check out this link for all the original sources.

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch (The Book of Miracle), c. 1552

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, (Comet mit einem grosen Schwantz), c. 1552

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch (Comet, 1500)

Image from A Popular Treatise on Comets (1861) by James C. Watson

Drawings of a meteorite falling in Ukraine in 1866, by Wilhelm Ritter von Haidinger
also a good bit of dirty space news in that above compilation!

Image from Flowers of the Sky (1879) by Richard A. Proctor

Plate XI from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings (1881) 

Leonid Meteor Storm, as seen over North America on the night of November 12-13, 1833, from E. WeiƟ’s Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt (1888)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

aaron swartz - the internet's own boy - open access

it was 2 years ago today that aaron swartz ended his life.

the friend who recommended watching this documentary about him - the internet's own boy - described it better than i can.
A story of a bright mind, a great innovator and someone who wanted to make the world a better place instead of making money. 
A story of how the law and the system crashed someone who could have had an even more amazing technical and social impact. 
It's a good film - watch it.

i completely agree.  in fact, i cried during this film for more reasons than two.




in the first paragraph of his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, aaron wrote:
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
i experience this everyday in how much myself and my institutions have to pay to publish and read science results. the cost is stifling. it's a racket. there are some solutions in the works, like the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

but of course some people will try to make money off anything, and the negative side of open access over the last couple years has seen the rise of predatory publishers. i receive regular invitations to publish in these "journals" and to give talks at bogus conferences.  to spot predators, look out for: bad spellings, copycat titles with a hyphen added, and check the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).

i think the culture within the "hard sciences" has a leading role in dictating how and what eventual laws will be enacted, because it is a progressive community relative to others, despite what it might feel like to the open access proponents within the community.  repositories like github and bitbucket are good examples of where open-source software can be developed in a public, collaborative way.

we need to be raising deep questions about content ownership and information access, both personal and otherwise, all across the internet. the time is now.

Cory Doctorow said: "Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so."

let's hope so.

anyway, watch that documentary.   it's incredibly interesting (and heart-breaking) and relevant.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Astronomy in the Park - Sydney

if any sydneysiders read this ...

I'll be participating in Astronomy in the Park this Friday at Centennial Park in Sydney. I'm giving a talk around 8pm and then the star-gazing begins! Let me know if you're interested - I can give you a ticket discount code.

sign up HERE.