Astronomers Heart Open Coding

Last Monday I travelled to London to give a talk at a meetup hosted by FutureGov on Github for Government, in trendy Shoreditch. GitHub being, of course, the flavour of the month in collaborative software development. The reason for the event was the presence of Ben Balter, who is GitHub’s Government czar (not his official job title – but close enough), tasked with building a community of “open government” enthusiasts around the world doing cool and crafty things with GitHub.

I’ve spoken and written before about the value of openness in science in general, and I feel that sharing our code is an important part of that. So I volunteered to give a short talk on the evening showing some of the ways that I myself, and the astronomy community in general, are embracing open collaborative software development. My slides are embedded above from Slideshare and in this post I’ll just summarise what I talked about.

In astronomy we’ve long had a pretty good culture of openness compared with other sciences: telescope data are very often made publicly available (after a proprietary period) in data archives that now host 100s of TB. Over 90% of our scientific literature gets posted to Arxiv, making the vast majority of our papers publicly accessible. The benefits of this have been demonstrated time and time again: public archives lead to data being reused over and over again, effectively giving more bang per telescope buck. Just having our imagery out there on the web, free and in the open, leads to creativity in wholly unexpected places like fashion design (and no, I do not get paid to post these pictures, and no, I am not above accepting freebies and yes, I would happily give public talks in astronomy-themed sportswear).

Software has always lagged behind in our openness, as I suspect many of us don’t consider our code to form an important part of our science, or we think we’re too rubbish at it to share. The fact that simulators, whose science is code, have historically been better at sharing or publishing their codes, would support that theory. As a result, lots of effort is needlessly duplicated, and those who are really good at writing code aren’t getting much credit for their work. But as we enter into an era of data-driven science, that is beginning to change.

In the Big Data paradigm, software sits far more “front & centre” in the research process. Software is no longer a clunky “just good enough” tool; with Big Data, clever software is clever science. And as teams are also becoming bigger and more globally distributed, having good platforms for collaborative software development is increasingly important. GitHub is emerging as an extremely popular platform in the astrophysics community. Being able to work together effectively on software projects gives better, faster scientific return; builds a global coding community; helps talented coders develop their careers; and helps with transparency and reproducibility of research.

My own experience is small-scale, simple but effective. After getting my paper on triggered star formation accepted for publication in ApJ in 2012, I posted my analysis code to GitHub, and advertised the link in the paper. Earlier this year, Chris Beaumont (U Hawaii/Harvard) contacted me, wanting to use the code on a paper he was writing on machine learning techniques for better bubble classifications in the Milky Way Project data. With his excellent python and machine learning skills, he changed a few 100 lines of code, got rid of some ugly loops I’d coded in, and sent me a pull request. My code now runs insanely fast, Chris’ excellent paper is in peer review with my name as co-author, and I can unleash my code on much larger datasets than was previously practical. Public code: 3x win.

Organisations too are embracing openness in software development. Earlier this year, the Zooniverse announced that from now on, all new Zooniverse projects will get their own GitHub repository, making them effectively open source. Arfon Smith, who was the technical lead for the Zooniverse at the time, listed four main reasons: it fits with the Zooniverse’s attitude of transparency and openness; it may help other individuals or teams to learn how to build similar tools, be it for science or some other purpose; it allows people all around the world to contribute to the Zooniverse projects, for example by translating the sites into their own language; and finally, it allows the developers to show off their work. I think this last point is often neglected. Put differently, GitHub is a perfect developer’s portfolio.

GitHub obviously thought Zoonivese were doin’ it right, and hired Arfon as their new Science Guy.

A final example I talked about is Astropy, the community-driven effort to develop a Python library of astronomy research tools. When Python first came onto the scene, lots of scientists saw its potential. But with all that lovely functionality in the IDL Astrolib or in IRAF, changing to python seemed like such an effort. A number of good packages emerged pretty quickly, but no definitive library. Astropy, led by Tom Robitaille (MPIA), Erik Tollerud (Yale) and Perry Greenfield (STScI) is changing that.

Together these guys are leading what may well be the largest collaborative software development project astronomy has ever seen, with over 50 contributors all over the world and amazingly, no official funding. The service to the community this team are providing is awesome: not only are they delivering great software, they are building a global community of talented coders in astronomy, and giving lots of early career scientists the opportunity to develop and show their skills.

Most of the things I talked about at this event are not “my” projects; they are my friends’ and colleagues’ efforts, which I’m lucky enough to hear about at dotAstronomy, over coffee or a beer. It’s clear to me that in the last couple of years, astronomers are really embracing the idea of open software development and it’s exciting to see this cultural change. GitHub may not be the only way to enable this, but the easy and effective workflow it offers certainly seems to be one of the driving forces behind this movement.

Sweaty in the Stars


Pretty astronomy pictures are not why we do astronomy, but they sure are a lovely side product of our scientific research. Even for the professionals, the beauty of the cosmos never really gets old. Producing beautiful images and making them available to a wide audience is a great way of introducing the rest of the world to science, and inspiring them to find out more about the stuff that’s around us, beyond planet Earth.

I’ve written and talked before about some of the unexpected and innovative way astronomical imagery can enter popular culture, and the high fashion designs of Christopher Kane‘s popular Galaxy line are a great example of that. This autumn, British sportsgear brand Sweaty Betty has produced its own take on the astro theme, with a whole series of running, yoga and swimming clothes sporting images from NASA’s archive. I had an exchange with the company’s twitter feed and they directed me to a page on their site explaining the background of the line:

It all began with a visit to the Chabot Science Museum at 10,000 Skyline Boulevard, San Francisco. I was fascinated by the exhibit featuring 1970s astronauts. To keep their muscles from deteriorating without gravity, they had to run marathons on treadmills in heavy compression suits.

As I left the museum, the pioneering female astronaut making her way in a male-dominated world seeped into my thoughts. She became, in a way, our role model and muse for the AW13 Collection, which you can see on the designers’ mood boards. The design of one compression suit in particular – Dave Newman’s revolutionary Biosuit – inspired the reflective patterns on the Adrenaline Galaxy Capris. Ski has yet to hit the shop floor, but compression suits are strong design influences – watch this space!

For the Dance and Yoga ranges, we looked at supernatural wonders of the world, like galaxies and the Northern Lights. Our designers contacted NASA to see if we could use some of their incredible photography and they were very obliging. I especially love the print used on the Sirsha Yoga Vest. The NASA photography can be seen further across run and yoga statement ranges.

Further inspiration for the AW13 collection came from the Northern Lights.

I particularly like that they’ve posted the backstory to the designs, getting inspiration from female pioneers in space exploration and the wonders of the world. Beautiful clothes with a story I can relate to certainly get my stamp of approval, as an astronomer and a runner. While we don’t do astronomy to make pretty clothes, it shows how our work, and crucially making it publicly available and showcasing it in museums, can lead to unexpected creativity and economic benefit.

My only comment to Sweaty Betty is that they needn’t have gone all the way to NASA: European astronomers too produce beautiful science, and are happy to share it.

Call for Proposals at the IAU Development Office

For a few years now, the International Astronomical Union has had a dedicated office to promote astronomy as a “tool” for development, to encourage astronomy activities in countries where perhaps it isn’t a very common pastime or profession. Astronomy is known to be an effective “gateway” for science education, so the idea is that promoting astronomy as a fun and inspirational activity for all will drive  people to learn more and explore, and get a bit more science goodness into their lives or that of their children. Any astronomer who’s given talks in schools, led public observing nights or participated in Stargazing Live, has stories of the enthusiasm they see in people of all ages for space, the planets, the stars and the Universe.

The Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), based in South Africa and headed by .Astronomy alum Kevin Govender, leads this great initiative. Since last year, funds have been made available to support astronomy-related projects around the world, specifically in those countries without an established astronomy community or to reach communities that may not have access to astronomy resources. I was happy to play a small part in determining how those funds were allocated, and as a result the IAU has supported some really exciting and worthwhile initiatives this year.

The OAD recently issued its 2013 call for proposals for the second round of this programme, with a deadline for application of 31 August. There are three categories: Universities & Research, Children & Schools and Public Outreach. If you have an idea or a pet project that you’d like to see funded in these areas, particularly for reaching those communities that regular funding streams aren’t getting to, you should consider putting in an application.

Full details and application forms are on the OAD webpages!

Science Online: The Good, the Bad and the Crazy

In 2010, astrophysics professor Pavel Kroupa at the University of Bonn – he of the stellar Initial Mass Function – published a paper in which he highlighted problems with the Standard Model of Cosmology (the so-called ΛCDM model, of which cold dark matter is a crucial ingredient), particularly in its predictions related to environments of large spiral galaxies. In a provocative move, he cited the discrepancies between the model’s predictions and observations as evidence that ΛCDM “doesn’t work”, and that we should explore alternative theories. One of these alternatives is Modified Newtonian Dynamics, or MOND.

In the months after the publication, the University of Bonn hosted a debate on this thorny subject between Kroupa and one of the architects of the ΛCDM framework, Simon White, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching. I thought this was an excellent idea, wrote a few blog posts about the matter and posted the live blog and video of the debate.

To those that read or watched the debate, it was clear that the two scientists don’t disagree in a fundamental way – ΛCDM has proved an extremely successful framework for cosmological structure formation, but the dwarf satellite problem is generally acknowledged. Kroupa’s most important point is that the community should not ignore those observables that don’t match the predictions of ΛCDM, and he encourages scientists not to get locked into a “cold dark matter” mindset, but to explore entirely novel theories, of which MOND is one example. This discussion has been expanded and illustrated further in a blog run by Marcel Pawlowski, a member of Kroupa’s group in Bonn, the Dark Matter Crisis, now hosted on, which is run by Nature and the German edition of Scientific American.

[Read more…]

Equal Opportunities: Not Just a Women’s Issue

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, where the interwebs celebrates women in science, engineering and technology. In past years I’ve written a little something for the occasion, but as I was travelling yesterday I had to give this year a miss. Do take a look at the many posts that were written on

On the subject of women in science, I was irked today when I heard about the upcoming elections for a new Equal Opportunities officer at my institute. The Max Planck Society prides itself on its family friendly policies and equal opportunities initiatives that aim to create a level playing field for men and women, and allow us to combine a “stable social background” with our scientific careers. Each of the 80 Max Planck Institutes around Germany elect their own EO officers, who are actively involved in the hiring of new staff, provide information to female staff on institute- or Society-wide initiatives, etc. They do good and valuable work.

Here’s the catch though: only women are allowed to stand for election for these posts, and only women are allowed to vote. If I understand it correctly, this is a Society-wide rule, in no way specific to our institute or to (astro)physics. I’m quite amazed at the short sightedness of this. Not only does it effectively remove all men from the entire process of creating a level playing field for men and women – men! the majority of the scientific workforce! -, it ignores all other kinds of bias that might occur, based on nationality, religion, skin colour, whatever. It’s making equal opportunities a women’s issue rather than something for everyone to think about.

Furthermore, it’s known that women themselves are as guilty of unconscious bias as men (this recent study was a good reminder). So while it’s good to have someone around with a clear mandate to spot biases in the hiring process, there’s really no reason why this should be a woman.

The attitude among men, in my experience, typically lies somewhere between complete disinterest and active annoyance. Though there are of course exceptions, men who truly care about the diversity of their workplace and the success of everyone, many seem to feel lthat women are getting an unfair advantage these days. When I see how often they are completely sidelined from discussions of equal opportunities, work-life balance or family-friendliness, I can sometimes sympathise (though to be clear: I do not agree).

Personally I try not to give the women in science “issue” too much thought these days. As a senior postdoc, being an excellent, conscientious, enthusiastic, self-promotional, hard-working publishing monster, ideally also healthy, sane and reasonably happy, is far more important than losing sleep over diversity in my workplace (sad, I know). Still, I don’t like this exclusion of men from gender or equal opportunities debates: at best, it gives them a free pass to think this is not their problem, at worst it makes them feel actively disregarded.

[The Max Planck Society has a lot of information on its family friendly policies on its webpages, and reading last year’s Annual Report, they certainly seem to be putting effort into supporting their female scientists. The report also contains lots of gender ratio figures in all areas of employment, so all the numbers are publicly available.]