This isn't your grandfather's stargazing: The amount of data we have on our universe is doubling every year thanks to big telescopes and better light detectors.
Think of all the data humans have collected over the long history of astronomy, from the cuneiform tablets of ancient Babylon to images---like the one above---taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. If we could express all of that data as a number of bits, our fundamental unit of information, that number would be, well, astronomical. But that's not all: in the next year that number is going to double, and the year after that it will double again, and so on and so on.
There are two reasons that astronomy is experiencing this accelerating explosion of data. First, we are getting very good at building telescopes that can image enormous portions of the sky. Second, the sensitivity of our detectors is subject to the exponential force of Moore's Law. That means that these enormous images are increasingly dense with pixels, and they're growing fast---the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, scheduled to become operational in 2015, has a three-billion-pixel digital camera. So far, our data storage capabilities have kept pace with the massive output of these electronic stargazers. The real struggle has been figuring out how to search and synthesize that output.
Alberto Conti is the Innovation Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that is due to launch in 2018. Before transitioning to the Webb, Conti was the Archive Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the organization that operates the Hubble. For almost ten years, he has been trying to make telescope data accessible to astronomers and to the public at large. What follows is my conversation with Conti about the future of, and the relationship between, big telescopes and big data.
Last year I was researching the Hubble Deep Field (pictured below) and I interviewed
Bob Williams, the former head of STScI who originally conceived of and
executed the deep field image. He told me that the deep field, in
addition to its extraordinary scientific value, had changed the way that
data is distributed in astronomy. Can you explain how?
It's interesting, one of the very first papers I wrote as a graduate
student in astronomy was on the Hubble Deep Field. I was a graduate
student in 1995 when it came out, and of course there was this "wow"
factor---the fact that this was one of the deepest images ever taken,
the fact that you have thousands of galaxies in this tiny patch of
sky---you would take out your calculator and try to calculate how many
galaxies there are in the universe and you would come up with a hundred
billion, and it was mind-boggling. It still is.
it also changed the data regime. Before the Hubble Deep Field, data
(raw images) would be deposited in some archive and you would just tell
astronomers to "go get the images." Astronomers would then have to
download the images and run software on them in order to find all of the
objects using certain parameters, and then they'd have to assess the
quality of the data, for instance whether an object that was thought to
be a star was actually a star. So you had to do a lot of analysis before
you could really get into your research.
decided that this data was so overwhelmingly powerful, in terms of what
it was telling us about the universe, that it was worth it for the
community to be able to get their hands on the data immediately. And so
the original deep field team processed the data, found the objects in
it, and then catalogued each of them, so that every object in the deep
field had a description in terms of size, distance, color, brightness
and so forth. And that catalogue was available to researchers from the
very start---it started a whole new model, where the archive does all
I can tell you firsthand how
incredible it was at the time, because as a graduate student studying
quasars, I was able to identify all of the quasars within the data in
just a few minutes. What Bob did, which I thought was brilliant, was
enable us to do the science much quicker. If you take a look at what's
happening with these massive archives now, it's being done in the exact
same way; people realized that you aren't going to be able to download
and process a terabyte of images yourself. It's a huge waste of time.
The other thing Bob did was he released the data to the world almost
immediately; I remember it took forever to download, not because the
data set was especially large, but because there were so many people
accessing the archive at the same time. That was one of astronomy's
first open source exercises, in the sense that we use that term today.
Has data always been an issue for astronomy? Did Galileo ever run out of log books? I remember reading about William Herschel's sister Caroline, an accomplished astronomer in her own right, spending these long, cold nights underneath their wooden telescope, listening for her brother, who would scream these numbers for her to write down in a notebook. How have data challenges changed since then?
Conti: That's a good question. Astronomy has changed quite a bit since Galileo and Herschel. Galileo, for instance, had plenty of paper on which to record his observations, but he was limited in his capacity for observation and so was Herschel to some extent. Today we don't have those same observational limits.
There are two issues driving the current data challenges facing astronomy. First, we are in a vastly different data regime in astronomy than we were even ten or fifteen years ago. Over the past 25 to 30 years, we have been able to build telescopes that are 30 times larger than what we used to be able to build, and at the same time our detectors are 3,000 times more powerful in terms of pixels. The explosion in sensitivity you see in these detectors is a product of Moore's Law---they can collect up to a hundred times more data than was possible even just a few years ago. This exponential increase means that the collective data of astronomy doubles every year or so, and that can be very tough to capture and analyze.
You spent part of your career working with GALEX, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer. How did that experience change the way you saw data and astronomy?
Conti: GALEX was a big deal because it was one of the first whole sky ultraviolet missions. I want to stress "whole sky" here, because taking measurements of ultraviolet sources all over the sky is a lot more data-intensive than zooming in on a single source. Whole sky ultraviolet measurements had been done before, but never at the depth and resolution made possible by GALEX. This had tremendous implications for data archives at the time. When I started working on GALEX nine years ago, the amount of data it produced was gigantic compared with anything that we had in-house at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and that includes the Hubble Space Telescope, which of course doesn't take whole sky images.
What we were able to do was create a catalog of objects that were detected in these whole sky images, and the number was quite large---GALEX had detected something close to three hundred million ultraviolet sources in the sky. That forced the archive to completely revisit the way it allowed users to access these very large catalogs. There were large databases in astronomy ten years ago, but databases that would allow you to search large collections of objects were not common. GALEX helped to pave the way with this new searchable archive. I can remember when we first introduced the data, we had people all over the world trying to download all of the data, because they thought that was the only way they could access it. They were thinking that to use the data you had to have it locally, which was the old way of thinking. The big leap was that we created an interface that allowed you to get to your data, to a level where you're one step away from analysis, and we were able to do that without you having to download it. We did it by creating interfaces that allowed you to mine all three hundred million sources of ultraviolet light in just a few seconds. You could ask the interface to show you all of the objects that had a particular color, or all of the sources from a certain position in the sky, and then you could download only what you needed. That was a big shift in how astronomers do research.
How much data are we talking about?
Conti: Well, GALEX as a whole produced 20 terabytes of data, and that's actually not that large today---in fact it's tiny compared to the instruments that are coming, which are going to make these interfaces even more important. We have telescopes coming that are going to produce petabytes (a thousand terabytes) of data. Already, it's difficult to download a terabyte; a petabyte would be, not impossible, but certainly an enormous waste of bandwidth and time. It's like me telling you to download part of the Internet and search it yourself, instead of just using Google.
Would something like the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope have been possible with the data mining and data storage capacities of twenty years ago?
Conti: Well, Kepler is an extraordinary mission for many reasons. Technologically, it would not have been possible even just a few years ago. Kepler measures the light of 170,000 stars very precisely at regular intervals looking for these dips in light that indicate a planet is present. The area that they sample is not very large---it's a small patch of sky---but they're sampling all of those stars every thirty minutes. So that's already a huge breakthrough, and it creates a lot of data, but it's still not as much as a whole sky mission like GALEX.
What's different about Kepler, from a data perspective, is that it's opening up the time domain. With a mission like GALEX, we collect data and store it in the database, but it's relatively static. It sits there and it doesn't really change, unless we get a new dump of data that helps us refine it, and that may only happen once a year. With Kepler you have these very short intervals for data collection, where you have new images every thirty minutes. That really opens up the time domain. We're working hard to figure out how to efficiently analyze time domain data. And of course the results are spectacular: a few years ago we had less than twenty exoplanets, and now we have thousands.
Is there a new generation of telescopes coming that will make use of these time domain techniques?
Conti: Oh yes. With Kepler we've developed this ability to make close observations of objects in the sky over time, but if you add millions or even billions of objects, then you get into the new regime of telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) which we expect to come online at the end of this decade. These telescopes are going to take images of the whole sky every three days or so; with that kind of data you can actually make movies of the whole sky. You can point to a place in the sky and say "there was nothing there the other day, but today there's a supernova." You couple that kind of big data, whole sky data, with the time domain and you're talking about collecting terabytes every night. And we don't have to wait that long; ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array is going to have its first data release very soon and its raw data is something like forty terabytes a day. Then in 2025, we're going to have the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the most sensitive radio instrument ever built, and we expect it will produce more data than we have on the entire Internet now---and that's in a single year. This is all being driven by the effect that Moore's Law has on these detectors; these systematic advances let us keep packing in more and more pixels.
In my view, we've reached the point where storage is no longer the issue. You can buy disk, you can buy storage, and I think that at some point we may even have a cloud for astronomy that can host a lot of this data. The problem is how long it's going to take me to get a search answer out of these massive data sets. How long will I have to wait for it?
Has citizen science played a meaningful role in helping astronomy tackle all of this data?
Conti: I think so. I'm part of a group that has done a lot of work on citizen science, especially with the folks over at Galaxy Zoo and CosmoQuest on an in-house project called Hubble Zoo. The original Galaxy Zoo was a galaxy classification project, where volunteers could log on to the server and help to classify galaxies by shape. Galaxy shapes give you a lot of information about their formation history; for instance, round galaxies are much more likely to have cannibalized other galaxies in a merger, and on average they're a little older. Spiral galaxies are structures that need time to evolve; generally, they're a little younger than round galaxies. And so when you have thousands of ordinary, non-scientists classifying these galaxies you can get some great statistics in a short period of time. You can get the percentage of round galaxies, elliptical galaxies, spiral galaxies, irregular galaxies and so forth; you can get some really interesting information back. What's great about citizen science is that you can feed images to citizens that have only been fed through machines---no human eyes have ever looked at them.
There's another citizen science project that I'm trying to get started in order to to make use of all the old GALEX data. With GALEX we took these whole sky images in ultraviolet, and we did it at certain intervals, so there is a time domain at work, even if it's not as rapid as the Kepler. But as I said before, we have over three hundred million sources of UV light in these images. There was a professor who had a graduate student looking at this data at different intervals with the naked eye, and they were able to find four hundred stars that seemed to be pulsating over time. When I saw the data, I said "this is interesting, but it should be an algorithm." So we made an algorithm to detect these pulsating stars, and we ran it inside the entire database of 300 million sources, and we found 2.1 million pulsating star candidates. And of course, this is just the first pass at this; who knows how many of those candidates will convert. But it's an illustrative case---the idea is to feed these kinds of projects to the next generation of citizen scientists, and to have them to do what that graduate student did, and then in some cases they'll be able to find something remarkable, something that otherwise might never have been found.
Can we talk about image-processing? What percentage of Hubble images
are given the kind of treatment that you see with really iconic shots
like the Sombrero Galaxy or the Pillars of Creation?
It depends. There's an image coming out for the 22nd anniversary (of
the Hubble) here in a few days, and as you'll be able to see, it's a
very beautiful image. I'm a little biased in the sense that I tend to
think that every image from the Hubble is iconic, but they aren't all
treated equally. There's a group of people here in the office of public
outreach at STScI that think a lot about how images are released. But if
you go back to the Hubble Deep Field, or even earlier, you can see that
the imaging team really does put a lot of care into every Hubble image.
And that's not because each one of those images is iconic; rather it's
because we have this instrument that is so unbelievable and each piece
of data it produces is precious, and so a lot of work goes into
And now, with the Hubble
Legacy Archive, people can produce their own Hubble images, with new
colors, and they can do it on the fly.
Like Instagram filters?
Kind of, yeah. As you know, all data in astronomy is monochrome
data---it's black and white---and then the processing team combines it
into layers of red, green and blue, and so forth. Zolt Levay, the head
of the imaging team, takes these colored layers and combines them and
tries to make them as accurate as possible in terms of how they would
look to the human eye, or to a slightly more sensitive eye. This program
lets you take three monochrome images, which you can then make any
color you like, and it let's you make them into a single beautiful
image. There's actually a contest being held by the office of public outreach to see who can upload the most beautiful new image.
The comparatively less flashy, less spirited former First Kid managed to show her mom’s softer side at the DNC on Thursday.
Yes, yes, yes. Chelsea Clinton is not the most charismatic orator—as the Twittersphere was happy to point out during her brief address on Thursday night. She is like her mother that way. There’s something not quite natural about her self-presentation. She’s not stilted, exactly. But she can come across as too cautious, too reserved, too conscious of other people’s eyes upon her.
But, let’s face it, as the lead-in to Hillary’s big nominating speech, a little bit of boring was called for. Unlike some of this convention’s high-wattage speakers, there was zero chance Chelsea was going to upstage Hillary with a barnburner or tear-jerker. Chelsea wasn’t there to pump up the crowd. Her role was to comfort, to explain, to cajole, with an eye toward giving Americans a glimpse of her mother’s softer side.
The Democratic nominee for United States president made a play for progressives, moderates, and Independents alike during her address in Philadelphia on Thursday night.
“America's strength doesn't come from lashing out,” Hillary Clinton said Thursday, delivering a harsh rebuke to Donald Trump as she accepted the Democratic nomination for U.S. president.
Clinton’s speech capped the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where she made history as the first female presidential nominee of a major party. While Clinton did not skip over the historic aspect of her nomination, she spent most of her hour-long speech emphasizing two, interlocking themes: the importance of community and togetherness, and the fundamental unfitness of the Republican nominee for office. It was not so dark and ominous a speech as Trump’s own acceptance speech a week ago in Cleveland, but it was a negative speech: a warning against the danger posed to America by a Trump presidency.
The Fox host’s insistence that black laborers building the White House were “well-fed and had decent lodgings” fits in a long history of insisting the “peculiar institution” wasn’t so bad.
In her widely lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Michelle Obama reflected on the remarkable fact of her African American family living in the executive mansion. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly discussed the moment in his Tip of the Day. In a moment first noticed by the liberal press-tracking group Media Matters, O’Reilly said this:
As we mentioned, Talking Points Memo, Michelle Obama referenced slaves building the White House in referring to the evolution of America in a positive way. It was a positive comment. The history behind her remark is fascinating. George Washington selected the site in 1791, and as president laid the cornerstone in 1792. Washington was then running the country out of Philadelphia.
Slaves did participate in the construction of the White House. Records show about 400 payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites, and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here.
In 1800, President John Adams took up residence in what was then called the Executive Mansion. It was only later on they named it the White House. But Adams was in there with Abigail, and they were still hammering nails, the construction was still going on.
Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well. Got it all? There will be a quiz.
Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia, ratifying a promise made there 240 years before—that all are created equal.
PHILADELPHIA—“Daddy,” my daughter recently asked me, “Why are there no girl presidents? Is it because boys are stronger than girls? Because they’re smarter?”
It left me speechless.
On Thursday night, in the city where the Founders declared all men created equal, I found my answer. It’s because no major party has ever tried nominating one before.
“Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president,” Clinton said as she accepted the nomination. “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come.”
It wasn’t the theme of her speech. But it was the unspoken subtext that ran through it. And Clinton took pains to frame the achievement not as the triumph of some subset of Americans, but as a victory for all Americans. She proclaimed herself both “happy for grandmothers and little girls,” but also “happy for boys and men—because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone.”
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
The Green Party candidate wants disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters to join her—not Hillary Clinton.
PHILADELPHIA—Jill Stein takes public transportation to the Democratic National Convention. On the day after Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination, the Green Party presidential candidate is on the subway en route to the Wells Fargo Center. Adoring fans spot her on the way over and demand selfies. A heavily tattooed woman complains to Stein: “It’s been a Hillary party the whole time. It’s like brainwash, like waterboarding. It’s awful.”
Stein is in high demand. The populist progressive tells me that after Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton two weeks ago, effectively ending his insurgent campaign for president, a lot more people started paying attention to her campaign. “The floodgates opened,” Stein says. “I almost feel like a social-worker, being out there talking to the Bernie supporters. They are broken-hearted. They feel really abused, and misled, largely by the Democratic Party.”
The former secretary of state made history by winning the presidential nomination. Can she do it again by winning the presidency?
PHILADELPHIA—Several hours before Hillary Clinton accepted the presidential nomination on stage at the Democratic National Convention, women leaders and political activists gathered to celebrate inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Wendy Davis told a crowd at the women’s caucus: “We have never, ever had someone who has walked in our shoes, we have never had someone who understands what it means to be a woman in America, and we have never had the kind of champion that we are going to have in Hillary Clinton.” The television producer Shonda Rhimes praised Clinton as a trailblazer: “She had the audacity to refuse to quietly conform to traditional First Lady roles when she first came to Washington … [and for that] she suffered a lot of body blows in the war on women.”
The State Department is reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, just as she puts a Justice Department investigation behind her.
Hillary Clinton is out of the frying pan and into the fire. On July 6, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for her use of a private email server at the State Department. But the following day, with that criminal investigation closed, the State Department reopened its own probe into the emails, the AP reported.
State Department spokesman John Kirby told the AP that it would be looking at potential mishandling of classified information by Hillary Clinton and her top aides. Former officials could face administrative sanctions, including a loss of their security clearances—a step that would be both politically embarrassing for Clinton, and complicate efforts to staff a national-security team should she prevail in November.