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Tonight I am performing cutting-edge science. I am searching for planets revolving around stars some quadrillions of kilometres from here. My equipment? A laptop and an Internet connection. The cost? Just a bit of my time. The possible benefit? Contributing to discovery of entirely new worlds.

On December 16th, a new project – Planet Hunters – was put online. The aim is simple. You are given a whole series of light curves (graphs) from different stars, and your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to identify anything that might indicate a planet crossing in front of its parent star. It’s easy to learn. In a few minutes you can be searching for far-away planets like an expert.

Planet Hunters uses data from a satellite known as Kepler, whose job it is to study hundreds of thousands of stars over an extended period, looking for signs of planets crossing in front of their parent stars. Planets are very dim compared to stars, so they are almost impossible to detect visually. However if they happen to cross in front of a star, the light from that star decreases momentarily. This decrease can be picked up by powerful telescopes and it is these occurrences that Kepler is keeping a lookout for.

That’s where we citizen scientists come in. Many of these small drops in brightness are not easily detectable by computers. Humans are good pattern recognisers, so we can often see anomalies that a computer might not recognise. Searching through the light curves for transiting planets is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. The planet, the star and the Earth need to line up exactly, so only a small percentage of stars are likely to show anything of interest, even if they have planets revolving around them. If enough stars are sampled however, new planets will certainly be discovered. Some scientists reckon that Kepler will quadruple the number of exoplanets known to us. We currently know of 700 planets revolving around stars other than our sun.

What hit me about searching were the many different types of light curves available. Many stars are relatively uniform, but others show complex variations and rapid fluctuations. The picture below gives you an indication of some of the star patterns I came across today.

So far in my searches I have come across a few patterns that may indicate a planetary transit. The software permits you to tag and highlight possible candidates. The same pattern is shown simultaneously to other users, so that comparisons can be made and observation errors reduced. If many people are tagging the same feature, then it is likely that something interesting is going on. Having us “citizen scientists” involved is of huge benefit to the real scientists,who would otherwise need to sort through a deluge of data.

Here are my 4 best candidates from my searches so far. They may turn out to be nothing of importance, but in any case for a few hours searching it’s been a fascinating introduction to the world of planetary discovery.

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What a tremendous and wholly unexpected reaction to my “Five Reasons” post last Friday. To everyone who commented, “Liked” or shared my entry I would like to thank you all.

The entry had been in the works over several weeks due a renewed interest in astronomy caused in no small part by a recent visit to some huge meteorite craters in Germany. I had refrained from posting it earlier because of some problems with wording. I certainly didn’t expect it to get much of a reaction because my posting has been quite sporadic lately and comments tended to be few and far between.

How wrong I was. The entry was placed in a prominent position on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed page, and the numbers began to shoot up immediately. My initial reaction was that I was the victim of a spam attack, but after reading the comments I was delighted to discover that something entirely different was happening. My site got thousands of hits over the weekend with over 120 comments to the entry at the time of writing, many of them very positive and supportive.

Some of the commenters were exceptionally kind. Many of you share my love of the stars and planets and the sense of wonder it creates. A few of you lamented the lack of light available in urban areas – a concern I share too. Here is a small selection of comments from you that I thought I would respond to.

Ishana wrote:

Nothing is more fascinating than that which we cannot obtain.

Very true. But who knows what awaits us in the future? Arthur C. Clarke once said that when a distinguished but elderly scientist declares that something is impossible, he is probably wrong. I think we have a lot to learn yet, but yes, it seems there will always be an “unobtainable” when it comes to the vastness of the Universe.

CommentatorandPoet said some particularly nice things about my use of the English language, and I would like to thank him for this. If only I could always be so fluent, as it often takes quite a bit of work for me to come up with the right words.

Nora Weston said

“Every time I venture into virtual space to find information and photographs…I’m left in awe”

A great point Nora. Astronomy is not just about what we can see, but what these amazing instruments such as Hubble can perceive. We can experience so much just sitting at our desktops now.

Pduan quoted Carl Sagan, one of the foremost science communicators of the last century.

“every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This piece of writing should be on the desk of every politician and religious leader in the world.

Rebelliousvanilla said

“I was laying on my back on the grass during the night and looking at the stars and thinking that if a civilization advanced enough to see details on Earth’s surface will look this way from Andromeda in 2 million years, they will see me, laying on the grass, looking towards them.”

You never know. Keep having weird thoughts, RV.

Chemical Marriage said

“Plus, IT IS HUGE! Space is a never ending hill to look over.”

Spot on and well said. I just quoted five reasons. I’m sure there are hundreds.

mndals said

“The universe is indeed filled with wonders and the more we learn about it the more wondrous it becomes.”

So true. We are only now beginning to learn about planets around nearby stars, and their strange and wonderful ways. What next? Life?

Last but not least, Tom Baker said

“I think my favorite heavenly body is my wife, but next to her is the Horsehead Nebula.”

Thanks Tom! That brought a smile to my face.

These are just a selection of the comments. I will try to visit as many of your blogs as possible over the coming days to see what I can find.

Thanks again for all your kind words.

A long time from now, Ireland and the UK will be just beneath the Tropic of Cancer, hugging the coastline of Africa. Japan will be on the Equator and the Arctic Ocean will be the largest ocean in the world. A large shard of Africa (the area east of the Rift Valley) will have split off and hit western India, and a two-thousand mile gulf will separate North America from South America. Only two major continents will exist: North America / Greenland and a supercontinent comprising Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australasia.

This is what the world will look like in 120 million years time, according to the German Research Centre for Geosciences

Continents have always been on the move. During the Carboniferous Period (around 300 million years ago), most of Europe and eastern North America was lush tropical rainforest, as evidenced by the very extensive deposits of coal (dead trees) in this region today. Over a long period of time, the continents have steadily moved across the globe like big pieces in a toddler’s jigsaw. Continents can be thought of as large rafts plying the oceans, occasionally bumping into each other, flooding, and splitting up due to internal processes in the Earth’s interior. 

For some snapshots of Earth when it was a young ‘un, check out this site.

Over the weekend, SpaceX managed to make history by being the first commercial company to put a payload into orbit around Earth. 

The Falcon 1 lifted off the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific on Sunday, lifting a 165 km dummy payload into an elliptical orbit around the planet. This is the fourth attempt after a number of high-profile failed launches. 

Although putting an object in space is no big deal nowadays, it’s still a big milestone because it heralds in a much more competitive, cheaper, efficient and fast-moving era in space exploitation.

The possibilities? Space tourism, space mining, zero-g manufacturing, and faster travel from one location to another on Earth. The downsides? More space junk and advertising.  When will the McDonald’s Golden Arches or a big Coke bottle grace our evening and morning skies, I wonder? Sooner than we might think, I expect. The day when billions of LEDs are implanted on the Moon, creating the largest dynamic TV display in history is on it’s way..

Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.

Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company. 

So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.

My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.

In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities. 

I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.

My first presentation at an academic conference is over. I think I did a good job of it. The audience were clearly engaged throughout my presentation and I got a lot of relevant questions at the end.

I tried my best to do as good a job of it as I could. I avoided bullet points as much as possible. I added many relevant photos throughout the presentation. I started my commentary with a strong “wake up” statement which was well memorised in advance. I positioned myself outside the lectern and into the audience, using eye-contact to connect with them. I used a narrative style to tell a story. I relied heavily on my passion and interest in the subject to bring it alive, and I brought the story to a close by relating it in some way to how I started my presentation. It helped that my subject rocked!

If there were any areas to work on, I would love to interject a little bit more humour into my presentation style. It’s a fantastic tool that really helps to build up a rapport with your audience. Those to whom it comes naturally have a precious gift that shouldn’t be belittled. I also had some technology issues (porting my presentation from a Mac to a PC was much trickier than expected. However it was all resolved before the presentation. 

My Toastmasters training and my keen interest in blogs such as Presentation Zen really came to the fore today.

Liverpool Waterfront by petecarr

Taken by Pete Carr

I’m flying out to Liverpool tonight, attending (and presenting at) the Logistics Research Network (LRN) conference. Should be fun. I’ve never been to a conference like this before and I have little idea about what to expect. 

 

 

Digital products

 

This weekend I will be taking a trip up to Dublin to accept an award for my master’s thesis. I’m looking forward to it, but it strikes me that I have never mentioned much about it in this blog. So here’s the basic idea. 

We live in a world of physical supply chains. If you want a product, a whole load of people are involved in making sure that it is available when you come in to a shop to get it. Some months or even years ago, people had to mine or harvest all the components or ingredients. Other people worked in factories to refine it, mill it or make it. Yet more people drove the stuff around to different locations. Presumably there was a place where final assembly was required. Then the products were stored in warehouses and finally distributors and retailers got involved to that it could be bought by you.  Lots of people. Lots of complexity. Lots of cost. Lots of things that could possibly go wrong. 

But some products – digital products – don’t seem to require this complexity. They have these unique, almost magical qualities that physical products don’t have. They can replicate themselves perfectly and with ease (i.e. copy / paste). The production of an additional copies does not require any new materials – there’s no resource drag. Digital products move around the internet for free and at high speed. This means that in the world of digital products there is no need for purchasing, manufacturing, transportation, assembly or any of the other related functions needed to support physical products. 

There are a number of different approaches to manage digital supply chains. First of all, there is the “pseudo physical” approach where people treat digital products as if they were physical. They limit distribution through DRM or copy-protection. They apply restrictive licensing. They threaten dire consequences against incorrect usage. They run complex processes to distribute keys to authorised individuals. It’s complex and messy. Customers get frustrated by them. Lawyers love them and given the recent history of the music business, this strategy is being forced into a long, painful retreat as file-sharing and peer-to-peer networking becomes more commonplace. 

The opposite side of the argument is super-abundance: a digital product, by its nature, cannot be controlled. Once it’s out there, it’s wild – downloadable by anyone. What I discovered was that companies are adapting to this. They still make money by wrapping their digital products into physical supply chains; by customising them so that they can’t easily be used by other people even if they were free to download; by using them to complement other (paid) services; and by using advertising based models. 

Digital products represent a big opportunity for companies, because all the infrastructure necessary to duplicate and distribute them is increasingly tending towards zero. The downside is that the price of digital products is also being forced towards zero, so sellers of digital products need to radically rethink how they organise their supply chains if they want to make money for themselves. 

And that, in a nutshell, is my thesis. Clear as mud?

The Phoenix lander alighting on the surface of Mars

Later today (or early tomorrow morning depending on your current time zone), the Phoenix probe lands on Mars to investigate if life, or traces of ancient life, exists in Mars’ polar wastes. There is a fascinating video on APOD today showing the probe entering Mars’ atmosphere and unfurling its instruments.

It is possible that today may mark one of the greatest discoveries in human history – finding life on another planet. But what are the repercussions, really?

From a religious perspective, there appears to be two possibilities: many of the moderate religions would be relatively open to the idea that the universe is teeming with life, a view bolstered by the Vatican astronomer recently. The fundamentalist religions would appear to have a problem, having accepted that the Earth is the ultimate focus of God’s work. It’s unlikely though that any of them will collapse, inoculated as they are against logic and evidence-based thinking. A bit of word-smithing will usually suffice for most of their congregations and to hell with those throwing stones from the outside. In other words: business as usual.

From a scientific perspective, the discovery on life should not come as a surprise. Over the last 400 years, a stong body of evidence has been built up that we are not so important, or unique, in the greater scheme of things. Given the vastness of the universe, and the ability of life forms to survive even in the most inhospitable of conditions on Earth, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would only bolster this viewpoint. Philosophically, the existence of life would be uncontroversial enough. What’s far more interesting would be the questions that this discovery would pose. What is the composition of the DNA? Would the chemical composition be different? What are the origins of life on Mars? Where else might we look for life? What would the implications be were we to bring samples back to earth? What would this tell us about the creation of artificial life in the lab? To put it mildly, the discovery would have the effect of reshaping and redirecting the research agenda in the 21st Century.

From a man-in-the-street perspective, it would be enlightening, a topic of conversation. I’m not sure if it would change anyone’s life irreperably, as we have now become so used to the announcement of impressive scientific discoveries in our lives. It would be a flitting moment of celebrity, until the media find something else to absorb their attention.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is moot and the more probable event of life not being found will be the result. In any case I’d welcome any views you might have.

I’ve been reading Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” on and off this last month. It’s given me a new perspective on religion and the religious experience that I had not sufficiently appreciated before. (Dennett’s style is different to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in that he tries less to expose the logical inconsistencies of religion and more to understand why people would carry out such devotion to a deity or deities. It’s a challenging book for religous people, but not necessarily an offensive one).

So here’s my take. Religion thrives because it fits many of our basic human desires like a custom-made glove. Our desire for understanding the world around us. Our desire for protection in an uncertain world.  Our desire for hope, despite all that might happen to us. Our desire to be thought of as special. Our desire to make an impact in someone else’s life. Religion has co-evolved with us, becoming more sophisticated as our culture has developed. It provides the feedback mechanisms many of us so desperately crave for. It has a flexibility inherent in it, so that different people will find answers that suit their specific preferences, cultures and ages.

In the end, maybe it’s all about love. People are inspired to do great things because of love. Love is all about abandoning one’s critical faculties, about commitment to someone or something, about sacrifice in the face of something bigger than oneself. Viewed from the outside it makes little sense, but for the person affected it’s a wonderful, uplifting, comforting experience. Love is vulnerable to manipulation, and in the extreme, people can be motivated to carry out the most appalling acts because of love. Love is blind, as they say.

Many commentators focus on the fear factor: the “believe this or else” sentiment. The “do that and you’ll go to Hell” sentiment. They assume that this is core to the religious experience. I’m not so sure. I think it might be more peripheral. I would even go to the extent that if people believe in a god purely because they are afraid of the consequences of not believing, then they haven’t quite grasped the religious experience. They may not even be religious at all. Telling someone that there are grave consequences to a simple transgression is far too ephemeral a reason on which to base a complete belief system. Our large prison population, for example, tells us that fear of getting sent down is a poor motive in preventing crime. So why should it be more successful in the case of belief? Fear, within the religious context, seems to be something that has more to do with organisational control than with religious belief. Religion plus fear is a powerful (and potentially destructive) force, but religion itself is not about fear.

These are my thoughts on the subject for what they are worth. I’d love to hear from you on this.

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