Google Sky : gateway drug

September 30, 2007

I just came back from the twice yearly Virtual Observatory Geeks meeting, otherwise known as the IVOA interoperability workshop. I am on the Exec, which means of course other people do the work and we pontificate a lot. We approved eight standards. Progress ! In an “Applications Showcase” session there were several talks on Google Sky and its possibilities, including one from Ryan Scranton, who created the beast together with Andy Connolly, while on special leave from Pittsburgh U. where they worked on a NASA predecessor called “NASA Worldwind“.

Obviously Google Sky is wonderful fun for Joe Public, and kinda cool for many amateur astronomers, but is it of any interest to professional astronomers ? Ryan thought yes – he said he thought of it as a cannabis-like “gateway drug” which many pros would play with, and then find themselves sucked into the crack-cocaine world of cone-searches, ADQL queries, workflows and so on. So where is the link ? Well several other VO stalwarts have already found ways to do VO-Google-Sky mashups of various kinds.

Example One is VOEvent. This is an IVOA protocol which gives a standard way to pass round messages from alerts made by gamma ray burst satellites, NEOs spotted by small telescopes, etc. There is a service run out of Caltech called “VO event net” which feeds these messages in various formats. Roy Williams showed they can be spat out as KML and so appear as push pins on your Google Sky.

Example Two is the PLASTIC Hub. This is a method which allows VO tools to interoperate, so that for example when you have found an image using Astroscope (from AstroGrid) you can pass it straight to Aladin (from CDS). Alasdair Allan showed how you can PLASTICise Google Sky, so that if you select a flagged object it will automatically move the cursor to the right place in the image you have open in Aladin, or whatever.

This is all very cute but I am still sure how useful it is. And as Bob Hanisch stressed a couple of times, Google Sky starts to get very confusing, and ambiguous, once you have a lot of stuff overlaid. Does this matter, if it is primarily fun for families, or Ryan’s gateway drug ? Well maybe suggested Bob, as high school teachers and kids are likely to start relying heavily on Google Sky.

By the way, there are alternatives, present or imminent. Wiki Sky performs a similar function, and is very good. ESO have a plan to use the excellent Stellarium planetarium software as a front end for VO tools. And Microsoft have been working for ages on a Google Sky equivalent, called the World Wide Telescope. Its one of the things Jim Gray was working on before he disappeared. I would never have guessed this a few years back, but I am starting to feel almost sorry for Microsoft. They have had a Google Earth equivalent for ages but it just hasn’t had the PR success of Google Earth. It was launched as “Virtual Earth” but then last year re-branded as part of “Live Search“. Its fast as well as well designed, and has an optional 3D interface.

Using Meteors to watch Polish TV

September 27, 2007

One man’s poison is another man’s meat. One man’s noise is another woman’s project. Radio telescopes see some odd things. Amateur astronomers miss half the best meteor showers. Polish TV is a nuisance. Or is it ? As Goethe said, connect, only connect. (Or was it E.M.Forster ?)

On Wednesday I was attending a meeting of the LOFAR-UK consortium. LOFAR is a project to construct a low frequency radio telescope array several hundred km across. It’s basically a Dutch project, but they are bringing foreign partners on board, partly to raise money and partly to expand the baselines. The UK consortium is planning several possible stations in the UK, maybe including one just outside Edinburgh, near where Dolly the Sheep was cloned. (A LOFAR station is hard to recognise as a telescope, being a collection of mesh tiles and odd looking metal spiders in a field…but all connected to an ultra-fast fibre link.)

LOFAR is appealing to a broad range of scientists. Years back, classical radio astronomy was entirely about exotic and violent things like quasars and pulsars, gravitationally collapsed and/or squirting out relativistic plasma. But now its part of the mainstream, with useful data on the interstellar medium, the early universe, star formation, stellar coronae, etc. Now the solar physicists and the space plasma folk are really interested too.

Ger De Bruyn gave a talk showing results from the first test station in the Netherlands. They made a map of the whole Northern Sky, and rediscovered the same sources Cambridge radio astronomers found in 1959. So far so good. But he also showed lots of raw data showing all the artefacts and radio frequency pollution you have to deal with. Some of this is cute. As Low Earth Orbit Satellites fly past, you can see them change frequency due to the Doppler effect. Some of it is very loud noise – Cas A and the Sun are horribly bright, and the Sun has a nasty habit of flaring erratically, as he showed in some data with 21 msec resolution. Suddenly Lyndsay Fletcher from Glasgow got excited. “Ooo give me that data” says she. “Are you sure?” says Ger, “its just a test run to see if we can clean the data”. “Yes I am sure” says Lyndsay, “we’ve got data at every other wavelength on the same flare – this is the missing link”. OK – science with LOFAR has started !

Next Ger showed how at one frequency Danish TV gets in the way, and at another frequency its Polish TV. (77 MHz if you want to tune in). The plot had a whole bunch of spikes. “That” says he “is the Perseid Meteor Shower”.

Being a dumb X-ray astronomer at heart I checked this with old hand Adrian Webster. Was the Polish TV signal really bouncing off the meteors ? Not quite, it seems. The meteors create an ionised trail as they burn through the atmosphere, and it is these trails which reflect the radio waves. So is this a discovery ? Nope, says Adrian. Bernard Lovell found the same thing at Jodrell in the 1950s, and claimed that all the best meteor showers were in the daytime…. There is a website run by the Marshall Space Flight Center which has a good explanation, and where you can even listen to radio meteor trails.

Ok, so I am catching up. Its still new to me. But the more I think about it the more bizarre and beautiful it seems. We bring together a field full of wire that can look at the edge of the Universe and an oscillating signal encoding pictures of people in Poland, and suddenly we can see small pieces of rock, unaltered for four billion years, finally streaking into oblivion above our heads.

New theme, de-tagging, tiddlers

September 25, 2007

Obviously going through a mid-blog crisis. Decided to have a makeover. Luckily here at WordPress Central, this is a drink on a stick, as they have a whole bunch of pre-made themes to pick from. This one is called “Contempt”. This ought to be the name of a theme used by an arrogant twenty something, but it looks ok, so it is being put into action by your friendly neighbourhood fifty something. If you spot me doing that comb-over thing, please take me out and shoot me.

Next up is de-tagging, or rather de-categorisation. A short while back I whinged about bloggers overtagging. Now those nice WordPress folk have admitted they had confused tags and categories, and actually we can have both. (I do like Matt’s Hat.) Sooooo….. I guess I am going to go back over all my posts and categorise them properly into a mere handful of categories, and also add free-form tags. Life will be briefly a pain in the arse and then will make more sense.

I would have done this yesterday, but spent the whole evening playing with TiddlyWiki. This is absolutely fantastic. Its one of of a new breed of “personal wikis” which run on the client rather than a server, and so can be used as an interlinked note taking system. It is entirely self contained inside a single html file, containing the javascript to make it work as well as the user content, and so only needs a standard web browser to work. You can even take your wiki with you on your USB stick, plug it into the nearest PC, and carry on working. Finally, rather than being made up of several pages, it is made up of distinct snippets called “tiddlers”, which are assembled on a single page which grows and shrinks as you open and close the tiddlers. Its very intuitive. Basically its Hypercard for the web. Brilliant. Furthermore there are lots of examples on the web, which you download as templates and just start editing. I have been using “Twiddly Wiki for the rest of us

Yes I know trendy young things have known about this for two years, but hey I still got my own teeth.

The Twentieth Planetary Congress

September 21, 2007

The Association of Space Explorers is in town – qualification for membership at least one orbit of the Earth. (I guess a round the world ticket on British Airways doesn’t count). So two days ago the astronauts, cosmonauts, and the tiny number of euro-nauts were dispersed about the Schools of Scotland giving inspirational talks. Then yesterday there was a public conference hosted by the University, with a whole bunch of interesting talks – about fire safety on spacecraft; about how to keep crew members fed all the way to Mars; about returning to the Moon; and about how space exploration has changed our attitude to Earth and its fragility.

It was a strange occasion for various reasons. Firstly, the audience was about one third each crumbling astronauts, university scientists, and high school kids, all sitting in different parts of the room. Secondly, my daughter was there, which I am not used to at scientific meetings. She made faces at me from across the auditorium anytime somebody said something vaguely rude about astronomers. Thirdly, it was all taking place in the famous Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. During the intervals, walking the corridors drinking tea, I felt I should be plotting against other factions, watching out for the ecclesiastical knife, and fretting about gay bishops and so on.

There was a talk about the NASA “return to the Moon” program, now called Constellation (not to be confused with Constellation-X, the big X-ray mission). I still can’t quite decide what I feel about money on the manned space program versus the unmanned science programme, but it depends on how you ask the question. If the question is “well, we got so much money for space stuff – do you wanna spend it on astronauts or on telescopes and space probes ?” then my answer is “telescopes please”. But if the question is “should we spend another billion or ten on bombing Iran, or should we train up some astronauts for going to the moon ?” then my answer is “why are you even asking ?”

Fingerprints, Trust, and Europcar

September 18, 2007

Last week on the way to an AstroGrid meeting in Cambridge I picked up a hire car at Stansted Airport and was asked for my fingerprint. Sorry. Correction. I was told I must give my fingerprint. No choice here. Apparently in an experimental scheme with Essex Police, ALL the hire car companies at Stansted were doing this; and Europcar have now rolled it out across the UK. I am surprised I haven’t heard more fuss. The BBC website discussed this back in November, and there has a small amount of blogging on it, e.g. here.

As usual on this kind of issue, I had two conflicting instincts. Thought-1 was “This is awful. The police state is creeping up on us. The People must rise up !”. Thought-2 was “Lets not be Canute here. Like Scott McNeally said, you have no privacy, get used to it.” Not sure which thought wins.

But internal curiosity welled up. Thought-3 was “Why is this so mentally confusing ? What’s really going on ?”. I suddenly remembered how back in the early 80s a Polish friend would explain that where she came from one person in every five was a policeman or police informer, and how this eroded society from the inside. Its about trust, and its about power. OK, so I am an innocent man, so I have “nothing to fear”. Giving my fingerprint is a good thing. This is clearly true as long as you trust the government. Well right now to be honest, by and large, I do. But if I was in the USA, I would be much more nervous.

But … why should I trust Europcar ??????

When I asked the right questions, they offered me the choice of blacking out my print when I returned the car. So I did. But this choice was not offered until I asked. And the pictures I see on the web suggest that most sites are automatically digitising the print rather than saving it on a piece of card, so this option has no safe meaning.

Maybe I should write to the CEO of Europcar and ask if he would please provide me his fingerprint for my records ? After all he is an innocent man, so he has nothing to fear. And I would promise to not doing anything with this information unless I suspected Europcar of a crime of some kind….

Liveblog : Death of the Library ?

September 14, 2007

I am attending a two day workshop called “Sustaining the Digital Library“, one of a handful of tame academics in a room full of librarians and IT folks. In an hour or so I will be sitting on an “Academic Panel” along with a chemist, a lawyer, and a Professor of Italian. (This sounds like the start of a joke … “there were these four academics sitting on a panel, and the first one says..”). We are supposed to tell them what life is like at the coalface, and what we really want.

For years, university libraries all paid huge sums to big publishing houses (Elsevier, McMillan, Springer etc) to buy scientific journals. Many librarians, and and many researchers, saw this as money for old rope. As the online world grew, and the idea of open access publishing developed, it looked like the academic publishing business would collapse.

This hasn’t happened. The publishers have got their act together, providing some very nice online journals, and getting together as a cartel to define an industry-standard way of referring to any digital object – the DOI system. Our libraries now pay huge amounts of money for online susbscriptions. Meanwhile of course everybody is asking “why are we taking up all this real estate with useless old books ?” and suddenly its the libraries that look under threat rather then the publishers..

The library fight back involves the idea of establishing Institutional Repositories – publish your paper in the University Library system … Today, John Houghton from Victoria University in Melbourne reported an economic study which suggests that such repositories, assuming open access, make economic sense, as companies and government departments will find it easier to get at what they want. There are now many such Institutional Repositories in place, but the problem is scientists don’t use them. Why would I do that ? Who will read it ? I’ll try to get it in Nature, thank you very much.

Peter Bunemann suggested another future for the library – hosting, curating, preserving, and marketing databases. Not the ginormous sky surveys that I love, let alone the humongous particle physics type databases, but the hundreds of wee collections that academics love to make, and that are becoming increasingly important in research. Now that sounds good. But maybe Elsevier will get there first and make us an offer …

Pluto : the final solution

September 8, 2007

Over at The Astronomy Blog, Stuart has a post about Pluto called Planet Status Apathy, and how Laurel Kornfeld has been vigorous in responding to his various posts. Gee I thought it was just me; but the comments made me realise it was others too. Laurel, where do you find the time ? Don’t you got a job ?

Through the comments on Stuart’s post, I discovered Paolo’s Demote Pluto website. This is wonderful. It has some really sane and balanced material, and links to all sorts of good stuff, including the “save pluto” campaigners. And … its really funny. There’s a great link to an interview with Pluto.

Best of all though is that Paolo has come up with the FINAL SOLUTION. Check it out.

This is not a physical spaceship…

September 7, 2007

Music is very strange. How does it work ? Why does it work ? Right after those evolutionary psychologists finish explaining the religious impulse, I want this music thing explained.

I had a fractured kind of day – sitting on a committee, trying to follow library politics; worrying about the Research Assessment Exercise; picking up my lost USB stick from those nice folks at the Music Kitchen; filling out a Leave of Absence form for a colleague only to find it was the wrong form; getting leaned on by the Head of College to reply to the crank who had complained I hadn’t replied to his three letters about why all of modern physics is wrong; trying to figure out why my printer just stopped speaking to me…

The world seems like a Cubist painting and my head is full of jagged thoughts. Then I put a record on. Actual vinyl. My daughter’s boyfriend is fascinated. He has never seen a turntable before. Then the teenagers leave for a party; everybody else is somewhere else in the house; I put on Motivation Radio and sit back. Its a corny but quite brilliant album. Perfect in its way. Gradually the world recombines, closes in, and makes sense; the music is the whole world, and I am on an effortless journey.

As the man says, this is not a physical spaceship; just a set of organised vibrations – known – as – music.


September 3, 2007

Just found this very funny site, like lolcats for science. If you like the Cheezburger thing, you will like this.

p.s. ahh the wonders of the web ! I found this linked at SciencePunk, which in turn I found when Googling for “nailing jelly to the wall”, which also turned up this wonderful description of a carefully pedantic experiment.