Searching for prescient tweets…

Sometimes it happens. You browse the list of papers in astro-ph, as usual. Many papers are “obviously” rather boring (since they are dealing with topics you’re not interested…), but others worth a close inspection (maybe). Sometimes it happens, sometimes you find a paper that you “decide” you perhaps one day may want to read (leaving apart the fact that it will be actually read or not, in the future… probably not). Other times you stumble upon a paper that it’s really odd. Admittedly, it’s dealing with something outside of your research field, nevertheless you’re struck, you cannot avoid to be curios.

Surely one of the  “oddest” paper I managed to find on astro-ph is the recent “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers” by Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson, two persons working int the Department of Physics of the Michigan Technological University.

In this ambitious work, they try to find evidence of people who have traveled (or will travel, depending on your point of observation) in time. And they use Internet for their investigation. Briefly, the point is to try to reveal persons who have traveled backyard in time. So, how can we discover them? See what they say:

Where a time traveler from the future to aces the Internet of the past few years, they might have left once-prescient content that persists today (…) Such content might have been catalogued by search engines such as Google ( or Bing (, or remain in posts left on Facebook (, Google Plus (, or Twitter (

So the point is, to search for “prescient” content on Internet. Simply as that. In order to make this process as efficient as possible, the authors focused on a couple of keywords (or properly speaking, hashtags). One is “Comet ISON” and the other is “Pope Francis”. In both cases, the labels came into the public lexicon during the selected “search windows” (they span from 2006 January to 2013 September).

Comet ISON is a comet discovered on 2012 September 21 by International Scentific Optical Network. On 2013 March 16, Bergoglio, the newly elected pope of the Chatolich Church, chose the name  Francis. For both events, the authors speculate about the fact that there is little or no reason, for anyone, to use such terms on Internet before the events happened. Except – obviously – in case of prescient informations.

The paper is quite intriguing and – odd it may seems – it develop the investigation (a bit more complex and comprehensive in respect of my description, to be honest) in a credibile way  – if one can use this term, here. Moreover, it features a detailed analysis of the reliability of finding contents on the most popular search engine and social network, which is valuable di per sé. 

Anyway, no time traveler were detected. This by no means imply that there are no time travelers, as the authors point out. Maybe time travelers do not want to be discovered. Or, “it may be physically impossible for us to find such information as that would violate some yet-unknown law of physics”.

While it may be slightly disappointing, we can close with a smile, recalling the experiment made by Stephen Howking a couple of years ago: the Time Traveller Party …. I would not want to reveal how many persons come… but maybe you can imagine 🙂

Why Curiosity already won (in my opinion)

Only a few hours before the  arrival of Curiosity on the Martian surface. The landing is a complex and intricate task, and we really hope all will be ok.
The Twitter account of Mars Curiosity, of course managed by NASA, at the time of writing, has a respectable number of 200,419 followers. You can bet that by the time you read this post, it was even a few minutes from now, the number of followers will be even greater.
In my opinion, a first important result of the mission has already achieved: to demonstrate once again that science affects the general public.  People love to stay in direct contact with these great missions: they account for the modern age what once could be the exploration of the Indies, for example. The pictures that come to us from the planets of the Solar System are the equivalent of stories and drawings of ancient explorers. These modern interplanetary missions are called to compile a brand new Million, the famous book that Marco Polo wrote describing his explorations.
The man has a thirst for discovery, to go over, to throw the heart over the obstacle. We are engaged in a thousand affairs, bogged in ten thousand daily problems, but (thankfully), we are still interested in a mass of metal and circuitry that is coming on a distant planet, It concerns us, fascinates us. And after all,  remind us that curiosity is a fondamental aspect of our humanity.
Marco Castellani
INAF – Astronomical Observatory of Rome

Open source and research: the case of GAIA

How important is the open-source software as part of the scientific research nowadays? Since I am an astronomical researcher, a lover and a user of open-source software, I’m very interested in trying to deepen this topic.
Well, an opportunity to talk about it now comes from the observation of software tools that are utilized in a big project to which I am also taking part, that is the definition of procedures for processing and analyzing the photometric data that will be generated by the ESA (European Space Agency) probe called GAIA (curiously, one of the first articles appeared on my italian blog was just about GAIA, in 2002). The probe will be launched in 2013, but the work for the definition of the appropriate procedures is already running at full capacity.
An artistic image of GAIA
(Credit: ESA/Medialab)
In my opinion, even a simple, brief list of software tools used by the different teams of Gaia – coordinated through a European network of scientific institutes – would probably be enough to understand that the open-source software is doing great or – to put it in a more technical way – that it now can count on its own defined space essential for applications and fields, at least in scientific research.
To proof this, I’ve written down a list (incomplete) of the open source software currently used in the development of the Gaia data reduction procedures, made by simply thinking about the tools that are used, by me or my colleagues, for the daily work within the project itself…
So, this is the catalog:
  • Java: is the language of analysis software and data reduction. Following a decision of ESA, all procedures need to be written in Java. This involves a series of remarkable benefits in terms of independence from the hardware, portability, modularity, etc. … too long to be fully explained here.
  • Eclipse: is the highly recommended development environment  (which is to say, do what you like, but you don’t expect support with other environments…)
  • SVN: all the code is put under revision control, using subversion
  • MediaWiki: there is a wiki with restricted access, very large, in which is shown all the project documentation, the meetings and seminars for the various teams, the documentation. Briefly, a sort of mini thematic Wikipedia, devoted to people working on the project.
  • Hudson: a tool to automatically test the codes, at scheduled intervals, and submit reports on webpage
  • Cobertura: this tool is able to calculate the percentage of the code accessible to the test procedures
  • Mantis: is the chosen tool for controlling and managing bugs in the project
  • Grace: a useful tool to create graphics
  • Topcat: an interactive browser of tables and data editor
  • ant: a useful compilation tool in Java
  • Plastic (Platform for Astronomical Tool Interconnection) is a protocol of communication among different tools utilized mainly in astronomy (now is going replaced by SAMP)
  • And probably there’s something more that I cannot recall right now… 🙂
The interesting thing is that all this software is released under the GPL (General Public License) or similar, which makes it much easier to spread and use the software itself: there is no need to obtain proprietary and restrictive licenses (or to make our own institutes acquire them…): you can download the software and begin to use it immediately. That’s it. It’s not bad, I’d say, both for the “personal scientific productivity” and for the undoubted advantage that this has as part of the real project. Can you imagine how much of the researcher’s time and of the taxpayer’s money should be spent if they had to obtain licenses (renewals, software keys…) for all these things?
(Originally published on the blog SegnaleRumore, kindly translated by Claudia Castellani).

Stellarium, the sky inside your computer

Two new versions in just a few days: I’m talking about the popular software named Stellarium , which lets you explore the heavens, taking advantage of a large database that includes more than 600,000 stars (with extra catalogs of more than 120 million items!), with the representation of the constellations, images of nebulae (full Messier catalog), realistic representation of the Milky Way, planets and satellites. Stellarium also includes realistic effects of sunrise and sunset, zoom controls telescope, and much more … 

…  Briefly, there are so many interesting features that even those vaguely fond of astronomy can be convinced to try it!

ce of the planets above ESO headquarters, nearThe dance of the planets above ESO headquarters, nea
The dance of theplanets above ESO headquarters, near Munich.
The dance of the planets above ESO headquarter, near Munich
 Credits: Stellarium website

Version 0.10.3 has been released on 29 of January, with new features like plugins that allow to predict the position of artificial satellites, and a database with constellation for twelve different cultures.. and many other thinks that you’ll be glad to discover by yourself 😉

Version 0.10.5 has been released just some days ago; it features the correction of a lot of bugs, a reduced loading time and other improvements.
Stellarium is available for all the major operating systems (Windows, Linux and Mac OS X), it’s free and open source. Binary packages for Ubuntu 10.04 are now also available from their website. Could you ask for more…?

Stellarium website is

The observation of the Perseids

Today even the homepage of Google presents a very special image, because this is the proper time to observe  the Perseids meteor shower. Indeed, though the period in which you can see them in the night sky extends from late July to about August 20, the “peak” for the probability to see them is exactly on the night of August 12. The Perseids shower happens because the Earth passes  through debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet.

The special logo that appears today on the homepage of Google

If you want more detailed information, you can refer to the NASA website, which also offers some advice for the best viewing.

Our Galaxy, in the infrared

One of my preferred sources for stunning astronomical images is surely APOD (Astronomical Picture of the Day). It certainly does a good job in making you aware of the fact that almost every day there is something interesting from the world of astronomy – something that even (let’s say) ordinary people (without a specific scientific knowledge) can admire…

The image of Galactic center in infrared. Clicking on the image takes to an enlarged version (truly beautiful, but be careful that it may be heavy to load on slow connections)

Credit: Hubble: NASA, ESA, & D. Q. Wang (U. Mass, Amherst); Spitzer: NASA, JPL, & S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

As an example, some days ago I stumbled upon this picture, very beautiful indeed. This image is really intriguing since is in fact made by a collection of several hundreds of different images. What we can see here is the center of our own Galaxy, in the infrared band. Since infrared is not blocked by the heavy concentration of dust and gas of the central zone of our Galaxy, as the ordinary visible light does, it is much more indicated for this kind of researches.

The image that appeared on the APOD website and here reproduced is actually made by a composition of more than two thousand images, taken by the instrument called NICMOS on board of the Hubble Space Telescope. The field of investigation does extend for about 300 and 115 light-years, in the two directions, and it has been taken with a resolution so great that even structures large about twenty times our Solar System turn out to be visible…!