July 29, 2010

Exoplanet Seeker and Wolfram|Alpha

Just a little geekery and heads-up for those who are so inclined. I've just managed to hack up a link to Wolfram|Alpha's data set from my crazy ol' Exoplanet Seeker thingie.

But wait! There’s something else goin' on here: since The Exoplanet Seeker’s auto-suggest feature is powered by Freebase, I’ve actually married Freebase and Wolfram|Alpha together! Although in a primitive way, I’ve proven that it is indeed possible to make them work together. (Hopefully, this gives out a message to both companies about a dream of mine--which is that Freebase and Wolfram|Alpha work together for the good of the interwebs.)

Now enough with the bragging and pipedreams. Let’s get down to business and to the revelation of the secret on how it was all done.

First, let me tell you about Wolfram|Alpha’s cool new feature: W|A Widgets! So I built an exoplanet widget (shown below) using W|A’s widget builder, and piped in the exoplanet name into the URL of the exoplanet info widget. That’s was all there is to it!

But by no means is it perfect. There are lots of data holes. Freebase is not complete with all the exoplanet names, thus it can only suggest what it “knows”. And even if Freebase “knows” an exoplanet name, Wolfram|Alpha often doesn’t know it yet (W|A is slower in terms of updating exoplanet data). And so, selecting the “Wolfram|Alpha” on the dropdown and then clicking “seek” will yield a “not valid input” on the popup window. Of course, all this will improve soon enough. And I appreciate Mr. Wolfram putting up a page specific to Exoplanets.

The field of exoplanet science is progressing so rapidly that there will come a time when a need for exoplanet informatics is needed, if an Open Citizen Science on exoplanet research is ever set up to deal with the data aspect of exoplanets. For now, i hope this serves as a quick reference for exoplanet enthusiasts out there.

By the way, there are cool astronomy widgets in W|A’s gallery. Two of which are shown below. Do check them out! And of course, you must build your own widget!

Astronomy Category in Wolfram|Alpha Widgets Directory
Wolfram|Alpha Exoplanet Page

July 22, 2010

An Inspiring Visit on Solar Sailing

Having joined the Planetary Society this year, I thought I’d want to see some of these planetary folks in person. So I decided to visit the International Symposium on Solar Sailing 2010 (ISSS 2010) on that particular day when the Planetary Society would be there as well.

The trek to New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn seemed quick. I was reading Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams to maximize what little time I had, focusing my attention on the book, instead of gazing at the pretty woman seated across the aisle of my subway train ride.

I was late as usual, but was fortunate to see the last part of a lecture that was pretty amazing. I was shocked to see so few people attending the event. (To think that the online ticketing said it was fully booked--which nearly discouraged me from going). But I’m glad I still came to visit the event.

There were kids intently listening to the panel. And no doubt there were folks that were “young at heart” and very enthusiastic about space travel and exploration.

Then there was Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” whom Louis Friedman now introduced as the “Planetary Guy”. Bill Nye moderated the event with gusto, making the event livelier. His enthusiasm is really needed to inspire more people about planetary things.

During the the Q&A portion, I wasn’t picked to ask a question. But as the event ended, I was glad Bill Nye asked the same idea I was meaning to ask, “Will Solar Sailing take us to other Star Systems?” He then handed the mic to Louis who said it is quite a challenge pushing solar sails across interstellar space where the sunlight would become so feeble as the probe gets farther away from the sun. The current idea would be to push it using a highly-focused powerful laser (with information in it, too). Then he said that it would be another 100 to 200 years before we can truly send a solar sail probe to other stars.

Suddenly, with arms flailing--as if trying to swipe away the somewhat discouraging aspect of hearing a “hundred years”--Bill Nye ended the gathering with encouraging remarks about how incredible Solar Sailing truly is.

On my way out, I saw another truly inspirational scene. There were books on display directly in front of the exit doors, and I saw an elderly woman excitedly buying a couple of Gregory Matloff's and Les Johnson’s books (one was “Living off the Land in Space”). She was the same woman whom I overheard a bit earlier speaking to one of the panelists, "Thank you so much. This event is wonderful! There should be more publicity to these kinds of stuff!"

As I headed home, I continued to read Centauri Dreams ardently that I missed my stop. At the back of my mind I was thinking about that old lady. Her enthusiasm is fresh and vigorous. I am inspired. It’s never too late, nor anyone too old, to be enthusiastic about anything at all, even about dreams that will outlive us.

To me, that is the kind of human spirit that will take us to the stars.

July 16, 2010

On Google, Metaweb and Freebase

"We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."
~ Marshall McLuhan

I thought i'd give you a heads-up on some developments behind the "informatics" of exoplanetology, at least about the tool or platform that I've been using for the past few years.
You may have heard about Freebase, the open database where I add bits of information about exoplanets. Freebase is also the engine behind the auto-suggest feature of The Exoplanet Seeker.
Well, some googly eyes from Google have noticed Freebase and decided to buy it. Metaweb, the outfit behind Freebase is now officially part of Google.
As you know, Exoplanetology has been on Freebase for more than 3 years now. I've enjoyed adding all those bits of data into Freebase, but sometimes I worry that all that time I spend inputting data into Freebase might go down the drain if Metaweb fails to sustain itself. But I kept at it anyways, because its fun contributing what I learn (and learning as I contribute). So now, that worry is alleviated by the fact that Google's vision about the Semantic Web aligns closely with Metaweb's. What makes me happy is that Google and Metaweb will continue to maintain Freebase as a free and open database for the world. Well, that deserves a big "Yay!"