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Space Science

18-Year-Old Student Discovers Comet Break-Up 68

Posted by Soulskill
from the patience-and-a-sweet-telescope dept.
astroengine writes "It's an event that any professional astronomer would consider to be a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. But for one 18-year-old British student, witnessing the fragmentation of a comet she was studying became the highlight of a summer work experience program using the Faulkes Telescope Project. However, that was just the icing on the cake; Hannah Blyth of St. Johns College, Cardiff, also assisted in the discovery of over 20 previously unknown asteroids, two of which she discovered herself. It is extremely rare to spot a fragmenting comet, but for an amateur (let alone an 18-year-old student on work experience), this is an incredible achievement."
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18-Year-Old Student Discovers Comet Break-Up

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    fair enough a once in a lifetime occurence
    it's presumably rare as hen's teeth to see, rather than requiring skill other than basic capability, its more luck
    i guess she's gonna wait a while for a another significant spotting, unless she's well ahead in the favour of lady luck
    good on her seeing something cool though

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      What are the rest of the UK's top 'space' science people doing if they have "work experience" people using telescopes?
      Many PhDs, researchers, grads are produced per year and a limited count of fully funded "telescopes" - usually in demand and something coveted.
      • by Gordonjcp (186804) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @02:53PM (#37303542) Homepage

        Filling the young people who are just about to set off down their academic path with enthusiasm and excitement for all the Really Cool Things you get to do with science, obviously.

        Their investment paid off.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        What are the rest of the UK's top 'space' science people doing if they have "work experience" people using telescopes?

        Many PhDs, researchers, grads are produced per year and a limited count of fully funded "telescopes" - usually in demand and something coveted.

        As the other reply says, inspiring the next generation.

        We have some 18 year old students for 6 weeks over the summer, doing science. Also, about 10 university students work here for a year between 2nd and 3rd year ("year in industry"). Most of them learn loads, the university students make a good contribution, the pre-uni ones probably do to (none in my department) and many of them eventually work here, or somewhere similar, after graduating. Part of our remit is to educate.

        I work in IT, so what the scie

  • GOOD FOR HER! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 04, 2011 @08:34AM (#37301918)

    Good for her! This is what British science used to be about. The quest for knowledge and discovery is what once made the UK a scientific superpower. The neverending thirst for understanding that cannot be quenched. The burning desire to see further and deeper than has been seen before. The uncontainable urge to explore the unknown. The raging curiosity. The screaming need for enlightenment. The arousal of the inquisitive mind. The yearning for greater power of the mind. The want of all know-how. The needling pain of not knowing.

    It is because of these urges that we now know glorious names today, like Francis Bacon, Roger Bacon, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, James D. Watson, Francis Crick, and Alan Cox.

    • by houghi (78078)

      Mmm. Bacon.

    • Re:GOOD FOR HER! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Sunday September 04, 2011 @11:13AM (#37302512) Homepage Journal

      The quest for knowledge and discovery is what once made the UK a scientific superpower.

      Also a healthy respect for the amateur scientist.

      I've been recently writing a paper about the early mathematical work on solitary waves - guys like Laplace, Lagrange, Russell, etc. A surprising number of them were "gentlemen of science" who did it for the love, and because that's what gentlemen of science did. They didn't have research grants or teaching posts. Well, Russell did get all of 300 pounds to study shallow water, and that was a lot at the time, but not when considering that naval power and maritime trade were so important. But a lot of them were just guys who maybe came from wealthy families and were into scientific stuff.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      ASU finds 1000+ new asteroids [youtube.com] on any clear night on their 60" telescope these days. Were her 20+ asteroids all earth crossers or something? Were they discovered by software she wrote to automatically scan the sky and compare them against the ~half million known asteroids? Witnessing a comet break up, that's pretty cool... but I wouldn't call it the 'icing on the cake' to her 'major' asteroid discoveries :)
    • by c6gunner (950153)

      Good for her! This is what British science used to be about. The quest for knowledge and discovery is what once made the UK a scientific superpower.

      I'm not sure why you felt the need to bring nationality into this, but it's interesting to note that this is an American girl, in the UK, using telescopes in Australia and Maui. When it comes to science, borders don't mean much any more.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    and gets to tweet about it before the comet updates its FaceBook page

    Meanwhile the comet is looking for a new partner on eHarmony and match.com

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @09:06AM (#37302018) Homepage

    There seems to be a growing trend of young amateur astronomers. In 2009, Caroline Moore, a 14 year-old at the time became the youngest person to discover a supernova- http://www.astronomy.com/en/News-Observing/News/2009/06/Profile%20Youngest%20person%20to%20discover%20a%20supernova.aspx [astronomy.com]. She was then shortly thereafter surpassed by the 10-year old Kathryn Aurora Gray http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/04/girl-10-becomes-youngest-to-discover-supernova/ [cnn.com] If one is at all old this thing starts to really make one feel unaccomplished by comparison.

    One thing you might notice is that all of these people are female. I tentatively don't think this is a coincidence but at the same time don't think this is a strong example of the growth of females in science (although it certainly should help inspire other young girls). There's been for a very long history of women astronomers. While the specific example prior to about 1850 there are isolated examples like Caroline Herschel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Herschel [wikipedia.org] but in the second half of the 19th century a large number of women went into astronomy related work. Examples include Antonia Maury who did some of the first careful analysis and cataloging of stellar spectra http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonia_Maury [wikipedia.org] and Annie Jump Cannon who followed on Maury's and others work making systematic the correlations between spectra, temperature and brightness, a crucial issue for trying to estimate the distance of any start that is more than a few hundred light years away http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Jump_Cannon [wikipedia.org]. And then you have Henrietta Swan Leavitt http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Swan_Leavitt [wikipedia.org] who discovered Cepheid variable stars which allow one to extend distance estimates even farther, to outside our own galaxy. One thing that is important to notice is that a lot of these early female astronomers were doing work careful cataloging and classification work that was actually considered women's work and considered to be not that important by many. Thus, they got a lot less credit in their lifetimes than male astronomers. So at least that aspect has changed a lot.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      * One thing you might notice is that all of these people are female. I tentatively don't think this is a coincidence

      Correct. It's not a coincidence. It's just that the press doesn't give a shit if males do it. Example: you'd think that all murder victims in the UK are female.

      In reality, it's just that the press couldn't care less if you are male and get murdered - unless there happens to be some other cause they can attach to it (possible race motivations for example) and stoke up coverage.

      • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @09:19AM (#37302070) Homepage
        That doesn't make any sense. The people in question were the youngest to do what they've done, not the youngest females to do what they've done. There's a clear series of accomplishments here.
    • by Will.Woodhull (1038600) <wwoodhull@gmail.com> on Sunday September 04, 2011 @10:48AM (#37302406) Homepage Journal

      Young eyes are better at recognizing novel patterns than highly trained older eyes. As a person gains experience in a highly visual field like astronomy, they are more likely to regard something they had never seen before as a variant of what they already knew. A youngster to the field is more likely to bring the same image to someone else's attention: "What do you think this is? Could it be a Carolian snark?"

      Women in the US and I believe in Europe (and possibly across the entire human species) invest less ego in discovery activities than men do. Women are less likely to be anxious about making mistakes, and are therefore more likely to show unusual findings to more experienced persons.

      While many conclusions can be drawn from these two assertions, the obvious one is that observatories should actively recruit young, naive, nubile women to do all the night time work of taking the first look at all visual data. This would probably be the single most effective way in which astronomy could attract new males to its studies.

      • by formfeed (703859)

        While many conclusions can be drawn from these two assertions, the obvious one is that observatories should actively recruit young, naive, nubile women to do all the night time work of taking the first look at all visual data.

        Leela?

        Fits your description (except the naive) and is genetically uniquely qualified for astronomy.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      It's one of the few branches of science where a young amateur can actually do something interesting. They took all the good stuff out of chemistry sets due to liability issues. People doing electronics are conflated with hackers. Basement biochem is out of the reach of young people for cost reasons.

      But one thing kids do have lots of is time. Sitting behind a computer poring over image after image is precisely the kind of task kids excel at these days.

    • interesting to see that this gender disparity applies to astronomy just like it does in computer science.
  • by walmass (67905) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @09:33AM (#37302130)
    Sounds too much like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bart%27s_Comet [wikipedia.org]
  • by EnglishTim (9662) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @09:47AM (#37302168)

    ... it had set its Facebook status to 'single'.

  • Luck (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by tsa (15680)

    I think it's more incredible luck than an incredible achievement.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I totally agree. Happenstance and good fortune require no experience, expertise or anything else. She happened to be looking at the right spot at the right time. She did not know, expect, anticipate or predict the event at that location. She simple happened to observe the passing of an event.

       

    • Re:Luck (Score:5, Insightful)

      by WrongMonkey (1027334) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @11:24AM (#37302562)
      Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        How does that work for a lottery? There are tons and tons of people who prepare for the opportunity and yet all but one loses. Most prepare a heck a lot more than the winner but rarely win. What she did is almost similar... odds were probably the same.

        In her case, I would lean toward luck. Its when 'shit just happens' in your favor but you increase your chances via preparation. Nice work preparing, but lets not forget the majority of it was given to her by the heavens.

        Both puns intended.

        • by tsa (15680)

          Yes but for the one who loses preparation still has met opportunity. Or something.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by tsa (15680)

      I don't usually complain about moderation but the person who modded me 'offtopic' doesn't have all his braincells wired correctly.

  • by dpbsmith (263124) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @10:31AM (#37302340) Homepage

    Wikipedia's article on Maria Mitchell [wikipedia.org], who discovered "Miss Mitchell's Comet" in 1847, observing from the rooftop of her home in Nantucket.

  • ...then the person who finds something that is quite rare, something that everyone wishes they could have found, then the one who found it will be ignored and deemed "just lucky and useless" henceforth.

    If they have a "degree", on the other hand, they will be mentioned in all scientific journals and praised for their wonderful work.

    I'm not kidding. I see it happen to scientific minds in all categories almost every day. :)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    She is 18 and already making scientific discoveries...

    I am 25 and i'm still spending my weekends browsing slashdot!

  • It is extremely rare to spot a fragmenting comet

    Or is it astronomically rare?

  • by dannycim (442761) on Sunday September 04, 2011 @01:30PM (#37303106)

    FTA: Fragmentation in comets is rarely observed, but can occur when they are closest to the sun and develop spectacular tales of gas, dust and ice particles. The tale originates from the icy core (or nucleus), so when it heats up, vapor from sublimating ices are outgassed into space, dislodging dust and other material.

    Shouldn't that be "tails" and "tail", or some different definition of the word "tale" I wasn't previously aware of?

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