Thoughts on .Astronomy

Having spent the afternoon at my desk sorting out my to-do list for tomorrow, the buzz from attending dotastronomy has almost worn off. The odd thing is, it felt more like LugRadioLive year one, rather than a scientific conference.

You might wonder what a biologist turned sysadmin was doing at an event themed around “Networked Astronomy and New Media”. I ended up there purely to network on behalf of my department. Expecting potential researchers to come to you is great, but nothing beats going out and talking to them on their home territory. However, it turned out to be a much more useful experience than that.

The conference broke down into several topics:

  • The basics of blogging and web2.0 tools
  • Using the internet for eduction and outreach
  • International Year of Astronomy
  • Robotic telescope networks and the Virtual Observatory

What really surprised my was how much of this was directly relevant to out work at ARCCA. Because we have a mission to expand the user-base of HPC at Cardiff we obviously have to be reaching out to non-specialist. I have every intention of trying to apply some of the ideas from this conference in my day job.

After Iain Steele’s talk briefly mentioned market-based assignment of telescope time the idea of a commodities market in telescope time, perhaps unfairly, became the event’s running joke. With the following lunch being spent working out all the best ways to game the market. I was particularly tickled by the thought of a consortium of astronomy bloggers disparaging the service of a particular telescope in order to artificially depress the price of it’s observing time.

To bring things back round to a more serious note Andy Lawrence’s talk on the Virtual Observatory contained much food for though. Everyone is facing the prospect of dealing with larger and larger datasets. Obviously the particle physicists are out in front, but even biological datasets start getting unwieldy when you start dealing with things like population-wide microarray surveys. The basic point being that manipulating and searching the data at the site it was captured is easier than trying to ship the entire dataset to the researchers home institution. Eventually the norm is probably going to be for compute facilities like ourselves to be hooked into systems like the VO so that computational analysis of the data in a distributed fashion becomes as easy as distributed search and filter.

The highlight of the show for me was to get to see Cardiff University’s new half-metre telescope. If any of the astronomers want a tour of the new supercomputer I’d be glad to return the favour.

In short .Astronomy was fantastic amounts of fun. I’m sure I will return to this topic in more detail when the talks start to appear on youtube and the conference proceedings come out.