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Space Science

How a Guy Found 4 New Planets Without a Telescope 133

Posted by Soulskill
from the he's-just-this-guy,-you-know? dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Peter Jalowiczor is a gas worker from South Yorkshire, England. He's also the discoverer of four giant exoplanets, according to the University of California's Lick-Carnegie Planet Search Team. But he's not an astronomer and he doesn't even have a telescope. '...in 2005, astronomers at the university released millions of space measurements collected over several decades and asked enthusiasts to make of them what they would. ... From March 2007 Peter, 45, spent entire nights reading the data, working the figures, creating graphs. ... He then sent discrepancies he discovered back to the scientists in California where they were further analyzed to see if the quirks were caused by the existence of an exoplanet.'"
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How a Guy Found 4 New Planets Without a Telescope

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  • Bravo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by martinux (1742570) on Monday January 03, 2011 @06:46PM (#34748526)

    As an amateur astronomer I think the general mindset is that one cannot make a discovery of any significance without owning cutting edge hardware. Telescopes produce such mind-bending quantities of data that there is much opportunity for someone with some patience and an inquiring mind to add to the knowledge-base.

    Surely also a brilliant argument of the power of publicly available data.

    • by Desler (1608317)

      As an amateur astronomer I think the general mindset is that one cannot make a discovery of any significance without owning cutting edge hardware.

      Or using data generated by someone with that hardware as in this case.

      • Re:Bravo (Score:5, Informative)

        by History's Coming To (1059484) on Monday January 03, 2011 @07:21PM (#34748878) Journal
        Well, yes, that's why you don't own it: it's theirs.

        Point is, a lot of the bigger telescopes provide far more data than can be handled by dedicated computing. This has been the case since CCDs were invented decades ago, there's just too much to analyse everything within the budget, so they go for the obvious/important/cheap signals (delete as applicable).

        SETI started distributed computing in a big way, and this is a similar (if far more individually clever) application. It's very muck akin to the way volunteers sometimes sift through spoil on an archaeological dig just in case anything interesting has been missed by the JCBs and WHSs. Good on the guy, it's a fair old achievement and a hobby I aspire to matching.
        • by eleuthero (812560)
          And there are numerous other projects similar to this requiring a human brain rather than distributed computing - or at least where a human brain is still effectively helpful. Galaxy zoo is the past time of thousands and they recently branched out into digitizing old British navy war records for the purpose of long term climate research.
        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          This has been the case since CCDs were invented decades ago, there's just too much to analyse everything within the budget, so they go for the obvious/important/cheap signals (delete as applicable).

          Not just important/ obvious/ cheap ...

          Generally, you're observing towards an aim. You're mapping transverse velocities in a suite of planetary nebulae, or trying to determine the light curve of an eclipsing binary or whatever your proximal or distal project is. So you analyse the objects that you've targeted in

    • by Anonymous Coward

      As an amateur astronomer I think the general mindset is that one cannot make a discovery of any significance without owning cutting edge hardware.

      Which is completely stupid. How many professional Astronomers own cutting edge hardware? None, that's how many. The hardware is so expensive that it is owned by Universities, governments, research institutes, etc. and there's only a handful of people on the planet with enough money to buy one and fund its operation. It's not like the observations were made using a $50 telescope from the Kid's section at Wal-Mart.

      The Title, as well as the title of the Gizmodo article, are completely wrong. They claim he disc

      • by rjstanford (69735)

        ALL the data he used came from telescopes, just because he's not the one who pressed the button to operate the 'scope doesn't mean one wasn't used. There really isn't any difference between looking at the output screen at the observatory and looking at a spreadsheet of that same data, you're still using the telescope.

        The big difference is that, since telescopes can record that mass of data, now we can all use the telescope at once, all looking for something different. That's pretty cool.

        And the headline was colloquially correct... he used public data that was recorded by the telescope, he neither owned nor directed the 'scope (nor did those who did have to even know that he existed). When you walk somewhere without using a car, do you mention to people that, well, in all honesty, trucks were used to pour the concrete

        • And the headline was colloquially correct... he used public data that was recorded by the telescope, he neither owned nor directed the 'scope (nor did those who did have to even know that he existed). When you walk somewhere without using a car, do you mention to people that, well, in all honesty, trucks were used to pour the concrete that made the path on which you walked? Or do you design your sentence for a normal human being to understand the main point?

          You can walk from A to B without a road being present. It's called hiking. He would not have discovered these planets by merely looking at the sky and noting his observations. Data did not spontaneously appear out of the blue. I don't think that your analogy really stands.

      • by martinux (1742570)

        Many of us own cutting edge hardware - it's just that the hardware we own is limited to certain types of astronomy and is thus priced at a level where a professional or amateur can realistically afford it. For around £70000 you can have a cutting-edge imaging set-up capable of imaging supernovae in other galaxies. For less than £10000 it's possible to get hardware capable of photographing impact events on Jupiter in reasonable detail. If you pick up pre-owned gear you can get it significantly ch

    • Agreed, Bravo to Peter! This took lots of time, patience and drive to accomplish, regardless if the data came from his own telescope or not. Hats off!

    • by rjune (123157)

      Getting the data is only the beginning. From the article: "He worked for three years on the discovery, analyzing data made public by the university using his two home computers, spending hundreds of hours of his spare time in the task." This sounds like he did a lot of hard work to accomplish this. This shows the value of making the data publicly available.

  • I just look up and point myself
  • So.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by robthebloke (1308483) on Monday January 03, 2011 @06:47PM (#34748538)
    ... there was a telescope, just not one he owned....
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Now that we got that out of the way (seriously guys...), let's not ignore how awesome it is that this hobbyist found planets in a sea of data. What have you done lately that was as cool?

      • Re:So.... (Score:4, Funny)

        by amRadioHed (463061) on Monday January 03, 2011 @07:38PM (#34749052)

        I just discovered 4 new plants just by reading slashdot. I'm pretty pleased with myself.

        • by ygtai (1330807)

          I just discovered 4 new plants just by reading slashdot. I'm pretty pleased with myself.

          You stared at your monitor for so long that plants grew out of it?

      • Re:So.... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Roger W Moore (538166) on Monday January 03, 2011 @07:40PM (#34749066) Journal

        What have you done lately that was as cool?

        Collided protons at over 99.999999% the speed of light to recreate the conditions about 100 femto-seconds after the Big Bang to see if they produce Dark Matter particles which make up about 23% of the Universe. Still that's my job so I still think it is really amazing that an amateur can make such valuable contributions to science...and of course being a Yorkshireman myself its always nice to see another do well!

        However I am somewhat surprised that astronomers have not devised automatic algorithms to scan the data and look for signals like this. That's what we do with all our peta-bytes of particle physics data.

        • ...please don't annihilate the fucking world.

          Thanks.

        • by syousef (465911)

          However I am somewhat surprised that astronomers have not devised automatic algorithms to scan the data and look for signals like this. That's what we do with all our peta-bytes of particle physics data.

          There are certainly automated searches and instruments online or coming online. Best examples I am aware of (I finished my masters in 2004 and never intended to work in the field, so I'm a bit out of the loop)...
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_Gravitational_Lensing_Experiment [wikipedia.org]
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan-STARRS [wikipedia.org]
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Synoptic_Survey_Telescope [wikipedia.org]

          It's hard to correlate existing data from various sources though because he instruments are so different in terms of data capture fo

          • by wvmarle (1070040)

            I don't really agree with your comment.

            Using data from different sources is of course difficult, especially if those sources are not handled by the same person/team.

            But on the other hand, I would expect that automated searches are simply standard part of most pieces of equipment that produce that much data. A modern telescope must produce heaps of data, most of it useless and uninteresting, and way too much to handle for a human observer. Marking events allows the researcher to target those, and then mayb

        • Try and make them post the data online like nasa does, if someone picks something up like this man did, it will be for the better, and might even make for better algorithms.

        • and of course being a Yorkshireman myself its always nice to see another do well!

          Just as long as you don't try and plant a flag there on behalf of the Republic of Yorkshire...

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Now that we got that out of the way (seriously guys...), let's not ignore how awesome it is that this hobbyist found planets in a sea of data. What have you done lately that was as cool?

        My tally of iPad kills reached the hundred mark yesterday.

    • Re:So.... (Score:5, Funny)

      by owlstead (636356) on Monday January 03, 2011 @07:13PM (#34748816)

      The summary is right, the planets probably don't have any telescopes on them. I wonder how he found out even with a telescope though.

      • Yeah, it would be quite hard putting a telescope on the surface of a gas giant....
        As for the question, I'd assume by looking for gravitational wobbles of stars (since I'd assume other techniques would not be available without the correct instruments?)
        • by heypete (60671)

          Maybe by looking for planetary transits?

          My research group looks at already-known transits and gets more detailed information than the original discovery paper, but the HATnet project -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HATNet_Project [wikipedia.org] -- (who discovered most of the planets we look at), uses completely automated methods. Even so, they can't look at every star, and so there's always some data that goes un-analyzed.

          Very cool that this guy made this discoveries with public data.

        • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

          If you read the article, it tells you what they are looking for.

      • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

        Hey, I think I just found over 500 more... *holds up list of exoplanets*

      • I saw the man looking at the planet with a telescope.
  • nicely done! that is some dedication... i usually spend my spare time on nothing of scientific interest.
  • by siddesu (698447) on Monday January 03, 2011 @06:48PM (#34748548)

    He's been using "other people's telescopes" so to speak.

    This is nothing new -- in fact, most astronomers work just like him - they use observations made by their colleagues.

    The astronomers who actually do observations are fewer than the people who do astronomy, mostly because observing requires a whole lot of skills on top of astronomy knowledge.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 03, 2011 @07:20PM (#34748874)

      Um no. Typically the guys up in the middle of the night taking a series of long exposures are NOT the multiple PHD astronomers. It's college kids working on their Masters or Phd. Running a telescope is actually quite easy, you do what the Researcher asks, and then deliver the data. It's been this way for a while now. you dont have the old guy spending all night looking through an eyepiece with the guide motor controller in hand. In fact a friend of mine that works at UofM astronomy was making observations during the daytime by using a scope in Australia and had the data and images sent to him, he then did the processing.

      The only telescope that requires rocket scientists to operate it is Hubble.

      • by siddesu (698447)

        You should visit a modern observatory.

        • no joke. Large modern observatories come equipped with a staff of at least dozens, just to maintain the thing, much less actually look through the scope. I live near McDonald Observatory in texas, and to say that the actual scans are done by grad students is a joke.
        • by Sir_Lewk (967686)

          Visit just about any laboratory in the world and you'll see Ph.D. students operating equipment that costs millions of dollars under the direction of senior faculty. Without some pretty specific citations I find it hard to believe that astronomy is any different.

      • by darenw (74015)

        And Spitzer. And Kepler. And Herschel, and....there's actually plenty of work for rocket scientists interested in astronomy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I bet they all have the "keen eye for detail" on their CV
    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      Yes, we get it, a telescope was needed. But this kind of news is good and heart-warming because it shows that science isn't a private club, that it isn't the treasure that a few monks keep in their ivory towers after decades of arcane education. It is something that anyone can and is encouraged to participate it. These big tools exists, but they are everyone's property. The only thing I would change in the title would be to add "and without a PhD". Come on, science is the biggest game, anyone can join.
      • by iinlane (948356)

        Unfortunately most of the results in science are hidden behind paywall and the data from most apparatus is not publicly available. I don't even have access to my own publications not to mention others - how would I know if anyone else has already made discovered what I am researching?

    • Yes, very stupid headline. I doubt many astronomers own the huge telescopes they use anyway; some university or research organization does.
  • Good for him. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Unusual slashdot posting, in that there seems little to ridicule in anything or anyone about the event. Good for him, I'm glad his efforts paid off in these discoveries. I think he distinguished himself in his persistence and ability to keep at it when many others might have seen the effort as futile for so many reasons.

    • by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Monday January 03, 2011 @06:54PM (#34748620) Homepage Journal

      Unusual slashdot posting, in that there seems little to ridicule in anything or anyone about the event.

      You're just not trying hard enough! I say he's a pinko, commie, socialist, hippy for expecting other scientists to gather the data for him first! As our overlord Sarah Palin would say, he wasn't man enough to gather it himself. Now fuck off you peace-loving, sweet talking, idealist progressive. This is just one more reason why America is better than socialist England!

      For the record, I do not work for Fox News, I'm just an overachiever when it comes to misplaced criticism sometimes. ;)

      • I say he's a pinko, commie, socialist, hippy for expecting other scientists to gather the data for him first! As our overlord Sarah Palin would say, he wasn't man enough to gather it himself. Now fuck off you peace-loving, sweet talking, idealist progressive. This is just one more reason why America is better than socialist England!

        Classic retort. Unfortunately it does point out a potential future for this country (very scary one at that) but I had to laugh.

        • The real scary part is when you realize that if Sarah Palin does become an overlord, you can't even move to Canada to be safe, as she probably considers that part of the United States and will try to move the armed forces in to occupy it.
  • Gas giant (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 03, 2011 @06:49PM (#34748572)

    This guy is clearly a gas giant rather than everyday normal gas worker.

    • This guy is clearly a gas giant among gas workers thus it's no surprise that he excelled at finding four of his own kind. Fixed that for ya. Sorry, I couldn't resist.
      • by rjstanford (69735)

        The difference is that the original was funny, but yours was pedantic. Keep working on it, though, and it'll soon have that off-the-cuff refreshing 'improv' feel.

  • Automation? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Tibia1 (1615959) on Monday January 03, 2011 @06:51PM (#34748598)
    It says that he 'read data' and 'created graphs'. Couldn't whatever he was doing be automated? I'm sure that astronomers are already automating a whole lot of data analyzation, but for a random guy to find 4 irregularities, seems strange. Maybe high level pattern recognition is vital to the process he used? Get this guy, or somebody to start writing code.
    • It was outsourced, which is basically the same as automation.

    • by nospam007 (722110)

      Hi Mechanical Turk, I'll pay 10c for every new planet you signal to me and me only.

      • by vlueboy (1799360)

        Sure! Oh hi, I'm low on cash but can't find anything yet...
        I'll submit Pluto [wikipedia.org] and call it a night ;)

    • by andydread (758754)
      According to this post [slashdot.org] This guy has 2 science degrees. Not sure how much of a "random guy" this guy is.
    • by rjstanford (69735)

      I don't know about you, but I spend most of my day "pushing keys" and reading outputs while I develop software. Does that mean I could be automated? Some days, some time in the future, probably so. But not now.

      How 'bout yourself?

  • by skrimp (790524)
    They should put the data up on [[http://boinc.berkeley.edu|BOINC]].

    Bravo to the guy for doing it long-hand.
  • Surely you most be joking Dr. Feynman. Thanks, I'll pass, but think about working for our Bite-Me academy . . .

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Except, I'm too lame.

    Whenever I read stories like this, I think, damn, that could have been me; me, the "discoverer of planents". I always think that the layman can't make discoveries anymore now that making discoveries requires multi-million-dollars worth of gear or an intellect that's way over my head.

    But it just isn't true.

    This could, in fact, have been me ... DAMMIT, again.

    Kudos to original discoverer.

  • by orphiuchus (1146483) on Monday January 03, 2011 @08:04PM (#34749234)
    I'm guessing "Gas worker" is short for "Chemical Engineer.".
    • I'm guessing "Gas worker" is short for "Chemical Engineer.".

      Some might suggest you have that backwards...

    • Or he could be the equivalent of the meter reader that comes out every month to check how much gas I've used. Considering his acomplishment I'd guess the former not the latter but just sayin yknow.
  • If you read the article you'll find that he couldn't have found those planets with a telescope even if he had one. Even the best optics available on earth would be useless for finding those planets.

    That said, he did good work in finding the data for those planets in the sets he analyzed. And indeed he didn't use a telescope; but he couldn't have found them with a conventional (optical) telescope anyways.
  • The man's work is impresive, but what sorely stuck out is a lack of programmers who could have saved that man time, figuring out how to digitize and analyze their telescopes' raw data.
    How about they get the SETI clusters crunching it? Or at the very least the scientists can recruit Anonymous (who's been bored & out of "black-faxing work" since the holidays) in exchange for a some hot science-lady pics.

    • Or at the very least the scientists can recruit Anonymous (who's been bored & out of "black-faxing work" since the holidays) in exchange for a some hot science-lady pics.

      I'd join! I have at least 8 cores and 4 GPUs I can throw at the problem, let's get Operation Naked Science going!

  • ...and it even has a pivot table (I just turn it sideways).

  • That he's single and doesn't get out much ;)
  • and what kind of data is it? Is it images or position coordinates for stars?
  • by gordguide (307383) on Tuesday January 04, 2011 @12:02AM (#34750696)
    Kathryn Gray, a 10 year old girl from New Brunswick, Canada, discovered a previously unknown SuperNova over the Christmas holidays. Neither Kathryn nor her dad own a telescope. They used images downloaded to her dad's computer, an astronomy buff. The images were taken via a backyard telescope owned by another amateur, David Lane of Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada).
  • by Spinalcold (955025) on Tuesday January 04, 2011 @12:22AM (#34750800)
    Zooniverse has recently launched a new project using data from Kepler. You can create a profile at Planet Hunters [planethunters.org] and look for planet transits. IMO it's the most exciting project they've launched. Sure you're not naming the planets, but you are aiding the search.
  • You see, Frankie Jr., THIS is why you learns your maths. So that when you're just some guy working to put a roof over your family's heads, yous can look at some numbers, do some additions, and be immortalized in the fucking cosmos for just being curious little shit.

    Now go do your math homework.

    --- Really though... this is why you learn math even if you're not going to be a rocket scientist.

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