Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Science of Why?

Everyone has experienced the tiny toddler pestering a well-meaning parent with incessant questions of the sort “why is the sky blue?” Assuming the parent even knows the answer, it can be a bit frustrating to continually field these questions. But I look at it a bit differently. I have great respect for a child’s innate curiosity, a tireless pursuit of finding out how things work. Sadly, although most of us start off life that way, it is through years of institutionalized education, and socialization that our desire to know how things work gets beaten down, we stop wondering why and just take the wonders of nature for granted.

But I digress in my preface to my main point – why so few young people go into fields like physics in college? These days many university physics departments are stagnant in their size. Students often carry a negative perception about the utility of physics in seeking jobs so they opt for degrees in other science disciplines like biology and chemistry. Why is this?

One recent poll of current and past students in physics identified what initially got them excited about physics. Nearly every student indicated that, while other majors told them what various things are, physics could answer the “why.” Why is the sky blue? Why are some materials conductors and others insulators? Why is the universe expanding? Most of the polled students said they were in physics to pursue the why. Physics is a tool kit that teaches students how to think and how to pursue the “why” in whatever they do. Answering the why is a powerful talent to possess and can be applied to problem solving in just about every other discipline.

But getting back to my original point, something in these students brought out and reinforced the innate curiosity we’re all born with. Maybe it really is still in all of us. Maybe we just need to figure out how to bring it out again. Should we try to think like kids again, with pristine wonder about the world around us? One university, University of Texas Austin, reaches out to prospective physics majors with a signature phrase – “Does the ‘Why’ keep you up at night?” Exactly!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

setiQuest – LGM for the Masses

As an indepen-dent researcher, I’m normally not in close affiliation with the “inner circle” of the world-class science projects that have caught my interest over the years. As a result it is especially difficult to siphon off any raw data for use with data analysis efforts – an area which is my forte. Not anymore with SETI I’m happy to report!

I’ve been a participating member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project for years, but only as one of the thousands of volunteers worldwide who run the SETI@HOME screen saver that processes radio telescope data using a fixed algorithm embedded in BOINC software you can download for free.

Now, things are changing in the direction of much more openness. setiQuest.org plans to make available to everyone the data collected from the SETI telescopes, the software they use to looked for signals, and the algorithms that the software is based on. Now, software developers and algorithm enthusiasts can use the software and algorithms to hunt for signals using their own insights and with custom changes to software and signal algorithms.

Now, things are changing in the direction of much more openness. setiQuest.org plans to make available to everyone the data collected from the SETI telescopes, the software they use to looked for signals, and the algorithms that the software is based on. Now, software developers and algorithm enthusiasts can use the software and algorithms to hunt for signals using their own insights and with custom changes to software and signal algorithms.

setiQuest announced the availability of data in the second quarter of 2010. Open sourcing of software and algorithms will take place in phases, starting in the third quarter of 2010. The Physics Groupie plans to focus on new algorithm development using evolutionary algorithms.

So as new data is collected from the SETI’s Allen Telescope Array, between 100 and 200 terabytes daily, and with an expanded openness, I’m very much looking forward to contributing to a significant scientific project in a meaningful way – maybe even find some LGM (little green men). How about you?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Hunt for Supernovae

It’s very late at night, still, quiet, and the night sky beckons to me, teasing me to unlock its secrets. With moments like this I get lost in my thoughts of the cosmos and the incredibly violent events happening as we sleep, light years away from our safe little corner of the universe. What better time than to hunt for supernovae?

I’ve been a big fan of the Galaxy Zoo project since its inception (here is a link to my first essay). It is a great way for the public to contribute in a meaningful way with an actual astronomical project – classification of galaxies. The organization started another project called Galaxy Zoo - The Hunt for Supernovae where you can help identify supernovae in a large collection of candidate images from the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey. PTF identifies anything that changes in the sky, a variable star, an asteroid in motion, or a supernova. Built in the 1940s, the telescope used for PTF is the Samuel Oschin 1.2 meter at the Palomar observatory. In searching for supernovae, the PTF images the same galaxies twice per night, every five nights. The idea is to capture changes in the sky.

The supernova hunt uses human classifiers because, believe it or not, the human brain has innate abilities in making such visual classifications and can do so better and more reliable than a computer can. So we bipeds are of some use after all!

A supernova represents the end of stellar evolution. At the end of a massive (several times the mass of our Sun) star’s life, there is an explosion of such intensity that it can easily outshine its host galaxy. Our Sun on the other hand is too small to result in a supernova and will fade out with a whimper as it runs out of fuel to power the nuclear fusion at its core. The GalaxyZoo supernova project serves up images of possible core collapse supernovae and type 1A supernovae. The website provides complete instructions and examples of how to classify these amazing astrophysical objects. It is both a fun and educational way to pass time.

So if you’ve been an armchair astronomer up until this point, consider doing something real and join up today and start your own hunt for supernovae!

[Inset image is of the supernova remnant N63A in the Large Magellanic Cloud]