outreach report: day 4

Day 4

I join Mike out in the square again for solar telescope viewing. Previously, we had set up the telescope right at a choke point where many people walked through. This time, he’s got a folding table which he places in the shade off to the side.

It makes a big difference. We don’t get nearly as many visitors this time, but the ones we get sit down for longer and discuss in more depth. I talk for what might have been half an hour with an older man who has either a great interest in astronomy or some technical background; I end up going through much of CAASTRO’s research program, including the MWA, SKA, and SkyMapper, and we also discuss type Ia supernova cosmology and my research specifically. Mike is blown away by my results (variation in ejected mass may be what enables us to standardize SNe Ia for cosmology, rather than preventing us from doing so!). Exciting times!

Night 4

I had intended to go out on Sounds of Silence again, but I end up missing the bus! I remember where Mike said he was doing the astro tours, so I wander back behind the resort, away from the lights.

I listen for the sounds of enthusiastic astronomy presentation and eventually find Mike and the others. He’s just asking the crowd, Any questions? Can I join you? No Richard, go away, we don’t want you here. Nah, just kidding. I join the group of about 10 people to watch how Mike does business.

Mike runs a tight ship. This is a qualitatively different sort of experience from Sounds of Silence, where I end up sitting around a lot and maybe get 15 minutes of actual interaction with people. Instead the entire hour is packed with astronomy. Early in the hour Mike gives a quick demonstration of the effects of the atmosphere on starlight, showing why stars twinkle and planets don’t by pouring sand through the broad beam of a flashlight, and then the narrow beam of a laser pointer.

When viewing starts, there are two telescopes, each of which are looking at something different, so that people can circulate between the two and get the maximum number of looks through the eyepiece that time will permit. Meanwhile Mike keeps talking throughout, making sure nobody is left behind or understimulated. Another clever demo: the star Achernar is very close to the horizon. Viewed through the telescope, differential refraction in the atmosphere spreads its image out into a rainbow (just as a prism would).

The first hour is more kid-friendly and focuses more on ethno-astronomy: sky legends and cultural significance of various constellations and other features. The second hour, a separate tour with twice as many people, is more of a scientific tour of the night sky. I get a few questions about cosmology during this time which I’m happy to answer, and also try to field a few questions about some objects in our Galaxy (the Carina Nebula and η Car; the Coalsack Nebula; the globular cluster ω Cen, which some of my colleagues believe may actually be the stripped core of a dwarf galaxy satellite of the Milky Way).

At the end we debrief a bit. It turns out I did pretty well: keeping answers short and to the point is important when you’re trying to pack these tours. Mike tells me he approaches each show like a DJ at a dance, watching carefully to see who’s bored and who’s engaged. The show is more interactive for chatty audiences, less so for people who just want to get on to the next sky object. Mike will sometimes start talking about the next sky object during the viewing, as a subtle way of telling people they need to look now so they don’t miss their chance. He claims to be “winging it”, but after two years of doing these tours, every aspect of the experience is actually carefully calibrated and personalized to individual audiences (rather than being fully scripted, as the Sounds of Silence tours are).

This just reminds me how difficult teaching is, and how much attention to detail it requires. If I do manage to get a permanent position, that’ll be a huge and critically important investment of effort up front.

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day 3: Uluru first contact in vignettes

i.

I manage to get myself out the door at ten to six in the morning. Twilight is just beginning to creep into the sky as I board the bus. Emma is the driver, and we have a grand old time geeking our way out to Uluru itself.

We stop in the “sunrise viewing” car park for coffee. It is instant coffee; I have tea instead.

Several buses from one of the large touring companies are parked here. As I head along the wooden boardwalk, I encounter a relative crush of humanity. I reach the platform at the top of one of the dunes, I confirm that we have an excellent view of the horizon, but it is impossible to get a photo with fewer than two dozen human beings in it. What for me would be a moment of transcendental calm is fenced in by the clicking of camera shutters and the bursts of bluish flash light, by the murmurs and giggles of men, women, and children, from all parts of Asia and Europe, who are determined to maximize their photo-to-dollar ratio on this Desert Sunrise Experience.

I decide after a few minutes of this that I’d rather be in the car park. It turns out to be impossible from there to get a photo with fewer than three or four human-constructed buildings in it. I give up and get back in the bus.

ii.

The Cultural Center, run by the indigenous Anangu people who are the custodians of the land we walk on, is roughly constructed but pleasantly laid out. The paths are arranged in spirals which encourage the walker to proceed around the building in the same sense (counterclockwise, in my case). The main center I walk into is filled with references about what in the Pitjantjatjarra language is called Tjukurpa, the aggregate cultural history, cosmology, and moral traditions of the Anangu people.

There are many notices in which the Anangu people request visitors not to climb Uluru. They list various reasons: the top of the rock is sacred and the experience of climbing is part of an important ritual for Anangu men; the climb is dangerous and many visitors end up seriously injuring themselves or dying, creating legal problems and bad karma; the erosion and pollution of a hundred thousand climbers damages the fragile desert landscape and hurts everyone. There is a guest register which doubles as a petition of sorts, exhorting people not to climb. Yet, importantly, it does not seem to be forbidden outright.

I wonder why it is so hard for people to respect the local traditions: the Anangu own the land (as far as Western law is concerned), and attempts at explanation make it sound as though they need external justification to set their own boundaries. It’s easy for me to feel self-righteous, but congratulating oneself on being a “good guy” is just another form of privilege and entitlement: we shouldn’t need, or ask for, a cookie from the people being oppressed just for doing what’s right.

An old man comments at the desk that he’s dismayed by how many people are climbing the rock despite the injunction not to. After he signs the register, I follow suit. When I head to the cafe, I find him there as well. It turns out he is a Canberra-area resident, and an indigenous Canadian — a member of a Pacific Northwest Native American tribe. He’s semi-retired and makes his living through casual work on databases and computer networks. We sit down and share our coffee and company. He’s very chatty, and quite a character.

iii.

After a twenty-minute walk to the meeting place for the free Uluru tour I’m going on, I see where the climb is taking place. The slope of the rock face must be a 45-degree grade in places; looking at the rock from afar later, I see this is one of the shallowest grades up which it is possible to climb Uluru.  In a heartbeat, desire flits through my chest, and I picture myself at the top, with the flat expanse of desert below me and only sky above. Then, ashamed, I stuff these images back into my mental closet.

Accommodations have been made. A track has been worn thin from what must by now have been millions of European feet since the 1950s. A chain hangs from a series of posts, something for climbers to hang onto, which I’m sure no Anangu man ever got to use — or would be interested in using — on the same climb. The flux of tourists in both directions, of all nationalities, even at half past nine in the morning, is astonishing. Some, on coming down the mountain in kitschy sequined crowns, crow in delight at their accomplishment. Uluru, I just climbed Uluru, one American man shouts to a waiting friend. Ayers Rock! an Australian woman loudly corrects him with a raucous laugh.

The sign in front, bearing the prominent title

Please Don’t Climb

in six languages, bears poignant witness. I wonder if these people even read it. 

On a closer look at the slope, I conclude you’d have to be a daft bugger to try and climb that thing. As the Anangu imply, it’s only one slip to a broken neck. With proper climbing equipment or years of experience it would be one thing, but for millions of unprepared foreigners just off the plane? How hard would it be for your foot to betray you?

I sit waiting for my tour and try not to be a jerk about it.

iv.

The ranger guiding our tour gives us a lot of useful information, but goes about his business in a very long-winded way: he seems to spend more time apologizing about how he has no time to explain everything to us than he does actually explaining. He qualifies things obsessively, with many statements not far out of his mouth before he explains that that isn’t quite right, it’s just an analogy and he doesn’t know much about the ways of the indigenous people, but maybe he can give you sort of an idea, mostly.

He talks about the ways of the Anangu people: how their oral tradition encodes, as stories, maps to hidden water, recipes for medicines, best practices in forestry and conservation, and moral and ethical codes. It’s easy for Western hippies to talk emptily about how everything is connected, but in this case, the stories relate to each other in a dense web of knowledge about every part of the landscape and the Anangu people’s place in it. In the harsh desert environment, hospitality is the law of the land; I think momentarily of the similar importance of hospitality in Mediterranean cultures. Accumulating material possessions is anathema in a nomadic culture in which you must carry everything you own — but you don’t care about them because you can easily recreate anything you need from simple materials in the environment. If you fall on hard times, your extended family will take care of you, and so Anangu extended families are as tight socially as Western nuclear families.

Eventually we come to why we are still allowed to try to climb Uluru, and it is much as I thought quietly to myself: it’s in the European value system to overcome things as individuals. Such an imposing formation screams out to us to climb it. It would be almost as insane for us not to try it as to try it. Australian tourism ads encouraged a whole generation of white Australians to climb Uluru, and it’s not the Anangu’s way to make sudden decisions to stop things. They deliberate, making sure they understand the ramifications for the future — public outcry and pressure from the tourism industry over lost income among these. The numbers are in decline, but by the time they’ve paid their pretty pennies to come to the Red Centre explicitly to climb Uluru, it’s too late to stop them.

v.

The tour has gone way, way over the ninety minutes I scheduled for it, so I no longer have time to walk around the base of Uluru as I had planned. The ten-kilometer walk allegedly takes about three and a half hours to enjoy properly. So after a lunch of carrots and hummus, I decide to walk down along one direction until it’s time to come back to the car park to be picked up.

I am richly rewarded. Uluru seems like a charming enough rock from afar, but not obviously unlike the sedimentary mesas of Arizona’s high desert. Up close, the two couldn’t be more different. The rock’s side is rippled, undulating, and is inundated with bizarre features — pock-marks, deep gashes and wounds in the stone, corrugations of ancient sediment carried by tides at the dawn of life, caves and overhangs sheltering a honeycomb of multicolored features. It could be Mars, could be the moon of a distant gas giant, could be a detail from a Dali painting. But it doesn’t seem like Earth.

I heard some astonishingly varied birdsong earlier in the day, but was unable to identify the bird. Here there are clouds of tiny desert birds I’ve never seen before, and have trouble capturing on my woefully inadequate camera. Their distinctive call fills the air — they have red beaks like finches, but they’re “only small”, as our ranger guide might’ve put it. They seem to be regulars.  I will ask Emily about them later and learn that they are indeed zebra finches, one of her favorite birds.

On the way back I encounter another singular sight — my first red-capped robin, much smaller than I expected. It alights on a branch just a few feet from me. I signal to the noisy tourists behind me, waving and then pointing; they stop dead in their tracks, just as I did.

They’re still staring long after I’ve gotten my photos of the little bird and continued on towards home.

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astronomy outreach report: days 1 & 2

(NB: These are about my personal experiences in my own words, and shouldn’t be taken to reflect any official position of CAASTRO, whom I’m representing out here as Astronomer-In-Residence.)

Night 1 (Sounds of Silence)

I join outgoing CAASTRO Astronomer-In-Residence Iraklis Konstantinopoulos and the local Star Talker outreach team at “The Shed”, and drove with them there to a remote site for an event called Sounds of Silence. This is a trademark resort product — open-air dining in the middle of the desert, followed by a popular astronomy presentation and the opportunity to look at Saturn through a small telescope (an 8-inch Celestron). Arrangements with the team are much less formal than I expected from the official materials I was provided; I apparently don’t have to prepare anything, just go along and have a nice time answering people’s questions.

This particular evening, it seems like what we had was a failure to communicate. There are nearly 200 people present, and they’ve booked out the area for their own function — a benefit dinner with multiple long speeches, auctions, and an open bar. The guests are drunk, and seem to have trouble finding the location of the toilets despite the wooden walkway. After about the third time someone uses the bushes as their privy, I decide to just ignore them. The fellow who figured he’d have a smoke (out in the very dry, flammable brush) was somewhat harder to ignore.

More to the point, it isn’t clear that these people expected or even wanted any kind of astronomy-related outreach. I can’t fault them, but I wish they’d told us; our presence seems like some kind of mistake. The usual 25-minute Star Talker presentation is truncated to 10 minutes. The battery to the telescope goes dead and we have someone else run another one over while we wait for the charity auction to finish. Of the two hundred, no more than ten walk over to our telescope. After doing due diligence, we get out of there around 11 pm, more than an hour after our nominally scheduled departure.

The Star Talkers assure me this is not how it’s usually supposed to go.

Throughout the night, Iraklis and I trade war stories about grad school and the eccentric personalities of academics (including ourselves).  He’s great company and on the whole we keep relatively high spirits, considering. I’m all too happy to collapse into unconsciousness on arrival back at home base.

Day 2

I meet up with Mike (a CAASTRO-affiliated Star Talker) in the public square to run the solar telescope. He’s run off to the IGA to pick up supplies for CO2 rockets — baking soda and vinegar. I help him out by eating M&M’s out of a tube which eventually becomes the body of one of the rockets. It turns out to be exciting and messy, i.e., great for kids.

I’ve studied up on solar structure — the radiative zone, the convective zone, granules, prominences, the tachocline, and so on. Now I get the chance to audition some explanations on people: Solar prominences trace magnetic field lines much as iron filings on a table do. The radiative zone is like a hot plate which lets gas bubble up to the surface, forming the granular structure of the Sun’s surface. Some sense of scale is important: Each granule is about the size of the Earth. The Sun’s radius is about 100 times larger than the Earth’s. It takes light a million years to get out of the Sun’s core, but only eight minutes to get to us afterwards.

It turns out we have some work to do even to get this information out. What people are most confused and worried about is whether looking through the little three-inch telescope at the Sun will burn their eyes and blind them. One young woman continually insisted, no way! but we managed to coax her into having a look. I explained that the H-alpha filter removed harmful radiation (and indeed all radiation except at the H-alpha wavelength, 656 nm, but that’s another detail).

Not everyone was interested, of course — but the ones who were, were very interested. I got some good tweets for the account.

Night 2

I head out on another Sounds of Silence tour tonight at Mike’s request. The Star Talker in charge this evening is Emma, who has many, many questions about supernova cosmology and compact object structure. Her physics education has been rather informal and autodidactic, so I find myself stretching for some hilarious new metaphors to discuss electron degeneracy: Normal gas pressure is like a rock concert with people bumping elbows. In a sold-out concert, there’s no room to move and you’re packed in like sardines; this is like a white dwarf interior (all energy levels are full). Squeeze hard enough and some people will merge, becoming conjoined twins; this is electron capture. Keep squeezing and you’ll get a neutron star: an Argus-like monstrosity with a few hundred eyes and as many arms, made out of unfortunate former concert-goers.

The crowd is much more astronomy-focused than yesterday, and I see more or less how it’s supposed to work: Emma delivers a polished 25-minute presentation, and keeps the audience in the palm of her hand, ooh-ing and aah-ing at all the spots where they should be properly amazed. The night sky is clear as glass and you can almost see the Magellanic Clouds with your central vision. I also learn that the indigenous Australians see negative space in constellations: the Coal Sack Nebula, near the Southern Cross, is the head of the Emu, made up of the dust lanes running through the Milky Way. Look up and you can just see it — it’s really there.

Other things discussed: the fact that red giants aren’t the only red stars (though it’s hard to see M dwarfs from Earth); the cosmological principle, that the laws of physics shouldn’t depend on where you are or where you’re looking; the anthropic principle, that the fact of our existence imposes a strong constraint (or selection bias) on the kinds of universes we can have evolved in or observed. The capstone of the evening is a kid who wants to volunteer to be the first to dive into a black hole. I tell him to google “colorado state black hole”, intending to bring him here — when I visit the page later myself, I see the old GIF animations have been updated with something much more impressive.

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CAASTRO Astronomer-In-Residence program at Uluru

I’ve just arrived on site at the Ayers Rock Resort, in the Central Australian desert near Uluru.  I’m pretty wiped already from a long, hard, but rewarding week of conferencing at another resort in Coffs Harbour, about which more later.  But yeah, here in the Red Centre of Australia, this is going to be a proper adventure.

A bit of background:  CAASTRO, the ARC Centre of Excellence for wide-field astronomy based at the University of Sydney, has recently started running an “Astronomer-In-Residence” program together with Voyages, a tourism company operating out of Ayers Rock Resort.  Voyages runs astronomy tours — honestly, I’m can’t-even-ing out on how breathlessly awesome the night sky is gonna be out here — and want to add some flavor to their product by bringing in a professional astronomer to answer questions about the Universe for the public.  This is great for CAASTRO, part of the mission of which is innovation for high-impact public outreach.  So CAASTRO sends an astronomer out to the desert, and the astronomer helps with the sky tours, and in return gets free room, board, and adventures, plus a beautiful retreat-style natural setting in which to do his/her research.

So I was like, um, yes please?

It took a while for me to get things figured out, and I was pretty blood-sugar-deprived after a long flight and a not-entirely-healthy breakfast.  But I eventually found my room, found the market square, got my groceries and fed myself, so now I’m in a much better position to be stoked about the experience.  Here’s what the view looks like from near my room:

Uluru from Ayers Rock Resort

Yeah.  Sign me up.  Junkets ahoy!

We also get a Twitter account which we can use to publicize our CAASTRO-related activities on site.  So anyone who wants to watch me struggle with social media, now’s a great time!  I’m contemplating getting my own Twitter account as well in case the experience turns out to be less sucky than Facebook.

Later tonight I’m going to go out so that last week’s Astronomer-In-Residence can show me how it’s done (before he takes off tomorrow).  Until then I’m gonna try my best to relax a bit!

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the Total Perspective Vortex in VR

Can’t sleep. So, toast and cheese, and typing. Useless for physics right now, so hope my insomnia produces something else of value.

I’ve been giving some long hard looks into the void lately, particularly what I call the “postmodern job market” but which isn’t a new idea and which venture capitalists have been thinking about too. The executive summary seems to look something like this:

  1. Use accelerating technology to displace ever larger fractions of the labor market.
  2. Profit!

But that really is a discussion for some other time. Let’s just say that it has focused my attention on what unique insights and dreams I have to offer the world that nobody else can.

In what sense is tech making the world “better”?

Reading the tech blogs, TechCrunch in particular, has filled me with apprehension. I see a lot of churn, a lot of motion in technology, but not all of it in an obviously useful direction. So many of the entries seem to be discussions of who’s bought out whom; tech personalities getting their 140 characters of fame; or ongoing chatter about the latest messaging or social networking app which does little more than encourage us to be on the Internet all the time, without regard for whether this is the way we want to, or ought to be, living our lives. It’s unsatisfying.

I wonder if this is a sign that I’m not particularly passionate about technology1, even apart from not being an early adopter, and despite being fervently passionate about science. It’s not that I don’t sincerely appreciate technology — improvements in computer and Internet technologies that enable individuals to create more and better art than ever before, improvements in medical technologies that improve our health and lifespans, and so forth. But I want to understand how an innovation is going to make our lives better before I adopt or support it. And my impression is that I have a more conservative personal view of “better” than many tech enthusiasts: my ideal world is one in which we’re freer than ever to discover and express important truths, to explore landscapes of new experience and self-actualization, to create deeper and more meaningful relationships with each other — to understand our universe and ourselves before our atoms return to the greater substance.

On the face of it this seems like a progressive dream which would be served well by technology. But much of this spiritual progress requires an enormous amount of time spent in pursuit of self-awareness, or wrestling with incredibly hard problems with vision and effort expended over long timescales. Such activity is not fundamentally profit-driven, at least not in the quarterly business cycle, and is valuable only for somewhat quaint notions of “value” that aren’t easily convertible to dollars. Many of the current activities of the tech sector seem to me to encourage us all to speed up, jack in, share and interact and consume more and more — targeting a small, self-absorbed rich elite as their chosen market, people who are materially well off but increasingly entangled in the cycle of grasping and becoming, and doing little to help most of the rest of the world. Some surreal crowdfunding campaigns aren’t even obviously for products. I’ve got nothing against making money, but it distresses me to see so much cash being thrown at such seemingly pointless things. It’s taking the world in a direction I really don’t want to see it go.

There are occasional stories about things that really do seem to be transforming people’s lives for the better — low-cost hearing aids for the developing world, iPhone apps to facilitate outpatient medical care, new charity and microfinance initiatives, art support networks like Patreon where some of my favorite webcomic artists can earn a better living than ever doing awesome things. They’re all worthy goals and if I were to work for such a company, I’d consider myself fortunate to be adding value to the world.

Interactive cosmic bitscapes: building a Vortex

And then there are companies like Oculus VR. TechCrunch made a big deal about how Facebook bought it, presumably to own the platform for next-generation social networking. The idea of jacking into the Matrix, only to be attacked by the birdlike avatars of ten thousand targeted surveillance ads, chills me as only a latter-day Hitchcock could. At best I thought of virtual reality as a platform for increasingly elaborate first-person shooter games.

It wasn’t until I saw the ControlVR Kickstarter that I considered the possibilities I’d been overlooking: If we’re building real virtual reality now, who said it had to be used only for (mere) entertainment? Why not education, science visualization for research, improved communication? Why not all of the above?

I was sure someone must already have made an immersive virtual reality planetarium. A quick Google search revealed that astronomy educators apparently think of planetarium environments as a sort of virtual reality. This tallies with my own experience as a kid, where planetarium visits promised a breathtaking experience for my impressionable younger self. But with Oculus able to provide truly immersive video and audio experiences, and with ControlVR able now to let you touch things too — why stop there?

Imagine putting the goggles on and looking around in 3-D, and seeing nothing but stars. You can see them in all directions; you can learn the constellations in both hemispheres by just staring at the stars as clearly as you would parked out in the bush. You can float in near-Earth orbit, and while you’d still be in Earth’s gravity your eyes might fool you for a while. You can zoom in and out, changing the scale of your view interactively — like in the old “Powers of Ten” short film which captivated me at the National Air and Space Museum. You can rotate, or move forward or backward in time, much as Carl Sagan showed us the three-dimensional arrangement and proper motion of the stars of Ursa Major in the original Cosmos TV series.

Now suppose you can interact with the universe. Start it at the Big Bang, in which you find yourself inside, past the moment of last scattering, surrounded by swirling clouds of primordial hydrogen. At your touch, the clouds cool and collapse to form the first stars, then flicker with light as those first stars explode as supernovae, throwing “heavy metals” like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and iron far out into the interstices, being absorbed in the next stars and eventually forming worlds not unlike our own. You can watch the stars fizzle out and die, become neutron stars, become black holes; you can watch the universe pass away through the prolonged senescence of heat death, collapse in on itself in a Big Crunch, or be shredded in a few billion years by exotic “phantom energy” at the Big Rip. You can watch this happen as lazily as you like, or as rapidly. You can change the physical constants and the simulation will adapt. It might be part of a world-building game — adjust the constants to show the variety of structures nature can produce, and try to reproduce conditions that enable life.

Obviously doing this with perfect physical fidelity is far beyond our current technology; the roughest of approximations are made even by working scientists in a research context. But I imagine that if we were clever, we could show enough detail to create very convincing impressions of manipulating the reality around us, and to illustrate how changes in initial conditions creates different patterns under known physical law. You could teach quite counterintuitive, sophisticated physics, such as the fact that gravitationally bound structures have negative heat capacity: for example, stars grow denser and hotter as they lose heat energy to the environment, and that’s an important part of how they must form!

Enabling people to engage the universe this way might do for the Internet/VR generation what Cosmos and “Powers of Ten” did for me. It might fulfill the role of a sort of Total Perspective Vortex, instilling in us a sense of humility and wonder nominally accessible from the night sky, but increasingly rare due in part to light pollution. It might also instil a sense of ownership — we were shaped by these physical laws, but we’ve also come to know and understand them, and ourselves through them.

These are things on which I find I don’t often reflect in the rush to get the next academic paper published or the next piece of code written. But they were crucial ingredients of my first interest in science, and periodically help to combat the worst of self-absorption along the way.

It looks like Oculus is hiring engineers now; unsurprisingly, they’re looking for years of detailed experience in programming virtual reality systems which I don’t yet have. My actual employment profile for industry seems to meet with a different set of skills. But in terms of areas in which I’d be excited about working, this is currently the front-runner. Perhaps as a longer-term vision it is worth keeping in mind — and of course there are other ways to contribute to such a project: by knowing people who know people, and for the more educational aspects, by helping to translate our best known astrophysics into easily computable, visualizable forms which could run on a home platform. Even if nobody will pay me to work on it, it’d be a tremendously exciting thing to help build.

1Of course it’s probably not fair to judge all technology by what Apple or Facebook is building these days. But Silicon Valley does seem to capture a lot of the media’s attention, and an outsized share of the highest-valued, fastest-growing tech companies seem to me to have to do with letting people shuffle bits around to chase idle pleasures, accelerating the already breakneck pace of consumption in our society, and accelerating the rate of job loss from the global economy. So if there’s useful, interesting, truly helpful technology out there I could be helping to build, it probably won’t be flashy or trendy and might not even be visible; I might have to dig around a bit to find those possibilities.

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challenges in scientific software design

Uncertainty about where your life is going next is tough to deal with. You can sit around and wait for something to happen to you. You can prepare for a particular outcome and then have that be nothing like what you prepared for. Or you can prepare for multiple different plausible outcomes, spread your already-overcommitted energies even thinner, and still have nothing like any of your anticipated alternatives come to pass. I’m starting to better appreciate the extent to which this has driven large parts of my career.

My own history as a programmer

I’m pretty well known within the astronomy community as a software designer — at least, I would say, well enough to be recruited for postdoctoral positions and invited for talks at conferences based on my large-scale data pipeline design expertise, rather than my scientific accomplishments. This is a frustrating thing.

Computers and programming have always been a familiar thing to me: my family got an Atari 800XL when I was around eight years old, which featured programming in BASIC and offline storage on cassette tapes. A succession of newer and more sophisticated home computers, attendance at a high school with a Computer Systems research lab and advanced computer science coursework such as Systems Architecture and Artificial Intelligence, and ongoing exposure through self-study meant I could teach myself pretty much any language and do sophisticated things in it quickly. Together with friends I was designing computer games with simple sprite graphics and exploring object-oriented programming and parallel programming in high school. I was way ahead of the curve as far as computers were concerned; I had every advantage.

Starting in undergrad, I really bent my energies more towards physics and math, and although my computer skills were still coming in handy, I updated them only occasionally or as needed. I learned proper object-oriented C (as C++) in grad school, picked up perl and SQL in my first postdoc and Python in my second one. Here at ANU I’ve learned object-oriented Python, and gotten some experience with Django and CSS. But it’s mostly been little bits of things here and there. The overriding concern in science is getting papers out. What’s more, in my postdocs so far I have usually been forced by necessity to maintain pre-existing software systems that were never really designed so much as accreted, with the accompanying labor overhead associated with maintaining something that wasn’t written to be maintained.

At first I took it personally and blamed specific people for my poor luck. But I’ve come to realize that I’m probably only marginally better, when it comes to really big systems like the ones that make surveys like SkyMapper go forward. The design for the SkyMapper pipeline isn’t terrible; Fang Yuan and I have put a lot of thought into it, and we’re both personally responsible for the fact that it works, and works to spec. But I wonder how much better it could have been if we had both been trained in software design: good coding habits, best practices for design, project management methodologies like Agile, and so forth.

I’m now worrying about this from a career management point of view: I’ve always imagined that I could transfer to software engineering if physics didn’t work out, but this may not be as easy a transition as I had at first imagined. The fact is that opportunities to learn from real software experts as a scientist are probably not that hard to come by. But at least in my past experience, we were rarely encouraged to consult and learn from those people, and perhaps tacitly discouraged from doing so by the incentives at work in our employment environments.

Competing incentives

Readers who are experienced with software, let me know whether the following claims are reasonable. As a software developer, assuming your workplace is reasonably functional, your task is clear: design a software product that works, on time and on budget. If your workplace is super-functional, you might also concern yourself with the problem of designing a software product that works well and is easily maintainable and extensible into the future. But you’re being paid to do one thing, and doing that thing exceptionally well will presumably also advance your career and allow you to move to positions of greater influence and responsibility.

In science, if your workplace is functional you’ll have to split your energy between writing software for an experiment and publishing results associated with that experiment. If your workplace is dysfunctional you can easily spend your whole time writing software, which is what you were nominally hired to do, but spend virtually no time publishing first-author papers, which is what you need to do to get your next job. If your experiment is small and may never be repeated, you have no accountability to anyone but yourself to make sure that your code is well-documented, reusable, or maintainable. While it is important to large, ongoing projects (such as wide-area sky surveys) that software be designed well, in practice you rarely get the eyes of a real expert under the hood and so the design can be pretty horrendous. You might know how it works, but heaven help the person who comes after you. Any time you spend developing skills to write good software takes precious time away from writing the papers you’ll need to get your next job. Or even just getting the code working so you can show more tangible results to your supervisor — a plot made, a supernova discovered. The breakneck speed both of scientific discovery and technological progress threatens to keep our view short-term, looking only one project or one job ahead.

Moreover, because you’re learning to write and maintain bad software without the domain knowledge typically used in industry, your skills may not be as immediately transferrable as you think. I’ve been reading about the coding interviews used in top software firms such as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon; similar interview practices are in place for “Data Scientist” positions, not just software engineer positions. They involve (among other things) coding base-level algorithms such as linked lists, hash maps, binary search trees, and quick sort, at a whiteboard under time pressure in front of an interviewer; I haven’t had to do things like that since AP Computer Science in high school. I know what all these data structures are, but (haha) isn’t this kind of tedious quiz-work what the standard library implementations are meant to free you from? I worry about the efficiency of my code, but usually only if it’s slower than I need it to be to solve the problem I’m trying to solve, and that’s a pretty loose criterion. I try to comment my code well, and to make sensible class hierarchies, and to only check working versions of things into the revision control system; I would say this is probably more than about 90% of my scientist colleagues do. But I don’t usually give myself time to implement well-known design patterns like Model-View-Controller. Or write unit tests. Or use distutils to make a Python module that can be easily shared or distributed on GitHub.

In short, I know some of the things I’ll need to know but have only ever taken a very short-term view towards maybe picking them up someday. If I’m looking to make a career switch, now’s probably the time, and I can certainly hope that the act of doing so will accelerate the software I have to write and share. But let’s not pretend that’s easy, or guaranteed.

The factors I’ve mentioned above are slowly changing. Senior scientists are beginning to realize that both the needs of modern, computationally-intensive science and the career landscape for scientists are very different from when they were students and postdocs. The younger generation is adopting more best practices of software design, and is aggressively promoting open-source science as well as open-source software infrastructure for science. There are some groups which are clear models for effective software production in astronomy, which is also discussed on popular professional blogs. Young scientists ignore these resources, and the trends they represent, at their peril.

How this is affecting my plans going forward

I’m still holding out hope for an academic career. Fortunately, since much of what I do is closer to software engineering than the typical postdoc, there’s probably time for me to make some adjustments to be more competitive in an industry setting. What’s more, I may be able to chart a course that does double duty — e.g., publishing papers about applications of machine learning to problems faced by next-generation astronomical surveys. It’s important that I get my big science results out as well — that’s mostly going to happen this year.

I also intend to make a big push this year to publish any piece of code that’s worth sharing. This also will benefit both my scientific and software careers:

As a scientist, putting my code out there will encourage other scientists to use it, make my process more transparent, get my work cited and increase its impact. David Hogg argued strongly at the last winter AAS meeting that the benefits of releasing code publicly far outweigh the disadvantages, for these and other reasons. Many people argue that if they release their code to the public, others will scoop them. But in general, putting your name out on it means you’ve established priority — others will see you as the expert and not try to scoop you (in general)! This might not be true for certain very competitive subfields, but in general, people want to scoop each other on Nature-style results, which I would bet generally aren’t the results enabled by releasing code. Regarding my specific code and the problem it was designed to solve, I want to turn e.g. my bolometric light curve fitter into a general-purpose supernova analysis toolkit, and I can leverage the contributions of others if I release my code (along with a methods paper targeted for PASA, which others can cite when they use or extend my code). The real scientific value is no longer in the code itself, but in the way it’s used — the problems to which it’s applied, and (in the Bayesian analysis case) the particular priors used for the modeling. If these problems and assumptions were obvious, we would already know a lot more about supernovae than we do; people out there have good data, but they’re using the same old assumptions all the time, when a little more thought would go a long way.

As a software developer, making my code open-source puts it out there for potential employers to see. It also puts it out there for other software developers to see, from whom I can learn some of the abovementioned finer points of the software design craft through hands-on problem solving, as what would otherwise be pretty ugly code becomes improved. (“If you’re not embarrassed, you took too long to release it!”) If I’m really lucky, some of them might even have future job leads — but let’s not count those unhatched chickens just yet.

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Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V

I took a break today. I went to the theatre.

After a long day of writing last-minute conference abstracts and chairing talk sessions for the RSAA grad students, I decided it was time to see my first Shakespeare show in quite a while. Well, not that long. Went by myself — thought I might meet up with some RSAA grad students and postdocs, but saw nary a one at the show.

Like the production of Twelfth Night that so endeared me to them before, Bell Shakespeare delivered a delightfully meta Henry V. The former was a play-within-a-play put on by refugees from a bushfire emergency huddled around a campfire; the latter is played by students sheltering in a classroom from the London Blitz. War, and the fog, confusion, and tragedy thereof, are a constant presence throughout. The opening minutes are a salvo of flickering lights and deafening noise, with occasional glimpses of tableaux of uncertain humans clutching each other, balanced on the knife edge of relief and pain. Whereas in Twelfth Night only tedium reigned in the world of the play, with all the action taking place in the Shakespearean-play-within-the-play, in Henry V we are constantly jarred between the two levels of action as the classroom is shaken by ordnance and air-raid sirens.

I recognize the split-level action as a formula, but it’s a formula that seems to work for me. Staging Shakespearean plays as plays-within-plays presents two advantages on which Bell Shakespeare capitalizes very well: First, it is a constrained format that unleashes creativity with minimal, carefully-chosen props, and pointedly outsources to us the work of imagining what some of the more spectacular scenes look like. Second, it engages our sympathy by presenting an intermediate between each character and ourselves, making romance that much more delightful, and war and murder that much more dreadful. I commented last time in particular on how level-crossing in Twelfth Night brought the gender-bending to a new level, as each character’s sex, gender identity and orientation could be interpreted in multiple different ways within the world of the play and within the re-imagined Shakespearean-play-within-the-play; this invites us to see members of the other sex, gender and orientation as humans like ourselves. Henry V uses a similar approach to deconstruct the myths of martial nobility within war: the characters in the play are frightened teens hoping the savagery outside will pass them over, yet they distract themselves in the Shakespearean-play-within-a-play by taking on the roles of bellicose princes and coarse men-at-arms rattling their swords. Particular attention is paid to Shakespeare’s texts underlining the human costs of war and the chivalric virtues of restraint and mercy, and to King Henry’s shouldering of personal responsibility for lives lost when he breaks with these virtues for pragmatic reasons.

Eventually the students start reading aloud to each other. The ensemble runs through ultracondensations of Richard II and Henry IV 1 & 2 to provide a modicum of backstory. The schoolmaster then delivers the opening chorus lines of Henry V (“O for a muse of fire!”), channeling the students’ efforts to voice-act the play in the current moment:

SCHOOLMASTER (as Chorus) …Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

With occasional interruptions from the bombs outside. The traditional apology shows up the even greater conceit of the play-within-a-play than the usual, but the schoolmaster is equal to it; he steals the show with his presence. The players oscillate, sometimes gradually and sometimes jarringly, between being rowdy schoolchildren playing the characters and playing the characters themselves. As props they use the blackboard, chalk, erasers, etc., and turned-over bookshelves to evoke scenery — whatever they might be expected to have ready-to-hand in their nutshell of infinite space.

This provides ample opportunity for humor. In his endearing pedantry, the schoolmaster-chorus maps in chalk a tangled web of lineages and intrigues among the royal houses of medieval Europe, in a history-lesson on Salic law doubling as King Henry’s claim to the French crown, then turns to King Henry as though the reasoning should be obvious (“as clear as is the summer’s sun”). Near the end of this:

SCHOOLMASTER (as Canterbury) Also, King Louis the Tenth —
SCHOOLGIRL Ninth.
SCHOOLMASTER Tenth.
SCHOOLGIRL Ninth.
SCHOOLMASTER Tenth.
SCHOOLGIRL Ninth.
SCHOOLMASTER (throwing book to the floor) Look it up.

(She defaces “Louis X” on the chalkboard with a single stroke, making “Louis IX”, when her mentor’s back is turned.)

Midway through playing Falstaff in the Henry IV flashback, the kindly schoolmaster suffers a mild heart attack, yet recovers. Not long after, Pistol tells us “for Falstaff he is dead”, and the schoolmaster is shown lying “cold as any stone”. The students are jarred back into their prison in the Blitz, mourning their mentor — who, like a Jedi ghost, rises unseen by the others from his bookshelf bier and lurks in the wings while the action continues. He still delivers the chorus lines, now unheard by the students.

This device is played twice more as two others among the cast die in the wartime action, each death an individually traumatic event with its own trigger: natural causes, tragic accident, killing in blind rage (“I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant”). A bloodied German POW stands in for the slaughtered French prisoners. The shades rise and retire from the main-stage action, their parts now being echoed by the remaining students who continue reading through their tears. Besides the constant fear of dying in battle, the play brings us to wonder at how our own humanity may be transformed in coming face to face with an enemy we cannot recognize as human, or the equal dread of seeing one’s friends and loved ones senselessly slain, and having to carry on in their absence.

One poignant re-staging touching on wartime atrocities: Catherine of Valois is seen learning English, in part, by phonetically sounding out a newspaper article reporting on the siege of Harfleur. At the play’s conclusion, as King Henry tries to seal his conquest of France with a kiss, Catherine, sobbing inconsolately, produces the dog-eared newspaper and reads Henry’s own words back to him:

HENRY V. If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love? speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.
CATHERINE. “…The blind and bloody SOLDIER with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
YOUR NAKED INFANTS SPITTED UPON PIKES –”
Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?!
HENRY V. …No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate: but, in loving me, you should love the friend of France…

I almost wonder whether this is overplayed, because it is hard to manage how even such a player as Prince Hal was known to be could pull off this second conquest. He does manage it, but realistically, it’s hard for the French to refuse his suit at swordpoint.

The play might start as an exercise in nationalistic wartime propaganda (“go England! beat Germa– I mean France!”), with marching songs sung as the students tromp through their imagined France. But by the end it’s just as much about what they’ve lived and are living through, with all the dead on both sides honored and remembered well.

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