I have many fond memories of my grandmother, Rose Kurzynski. Some are a little awkward, like the time she snuck me my first sip of beer without telling my parents. Some are very sincere, like the time she asked me to hear her confession and anoint her just before she died. Of the memories I have of Rose, many revolve around her favorite hobby: puzzles. Every trip to Rose's house meant time at the dinner table, working on her latest puzzle. Whether it was 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 pieces, Rose was the master of sifting through a sea of cardboard tiles to make a beautiful image.
Rose always invited us to help with the puzzles and loved explaining the art of puzzle making. "Start with the edges, those are the easiest. Then see if you can find groups of pieces according to color and shape. Clump the tree pieces together, the sky pieces, the grass pieces, and then look at the shapes to see if they fit together." Truth be told, she did more of the puzzle than we did, but she taught us how to see patterns that first appeared to be a chaotic mess, but then patiently brought them together to create a beautiful image.
It may sound odd, but my grandmother's puzzles were on my mind while participating in a "citizen science" program, looking for exoplanets. Yes... you read this right... looking for exoplanets reminded me of my grandmother. A while back, fellow "Catholic Astronomer" contributor Bob Trembley posted a blog about citizen science programs. I took the bait and looked up the different programs that hobbyists, such as myself, could involve themselves in. One of the programs I stumbled upon was analyzing light data from stars to help find exoplanets (you can check it out at https://www.zooniverse.org). An exoplanet is a planet that is not one of the eight that orbit our sun (planets around other stars, wandering planets, etc.). Planet hunting is of great interest in modern astronomy, so I thought it would be fun to try it out. After a short tutorial, away I went, looking at screen shot after screen shot of white dots on a grid, hoping to find something that might hint at the existence of an exoplanet.
As I gazed at image after image, my mind began to slowly see the dots in a new way. I started to make up goofy names for what I saw like, "Rain drop formations" and "ant trails." A few times, the image would notify me if a planet had already been found by the Kepler Team. At first, these occasional images reminded me of my grandmother Rose, sitting me down at the dinner table, teaching me how to find the edge pieces of her new puzzle. With practice and patience, I became more confident that I could analyze the data on my own. A couple times, I saw data that clearly pointed to an exoplanet. After marking it, the image informed me that Kepler had already identified the object as an exoplanet... RATS! At the same time, these moments taught me that I was analyzing the image properly, being able to sift through the "dinner table chaos" and "clump" together the pieces of the "puzzle" that lay before more. Now, there were also times that the image would reveal pre-existing Kepler items that were not even close to where I thought the potential exoplanet may be, similar to the young child, in frustration, trying to jam two puzzle pieces together because they were the same color, but the shapes of the pieces didn't match. Nevertheless, I came away from this time feeling like I had a lot of fun, similar to the fun I had putting together puzzles with Rose, and did find some interesting data that was not identified by Kepler as an exoplanet that made me wonder if I had helped contribute, even a little, to finding a new planet!
Back in 1996, I remember Dr. Randy Olson, my Introduction to Planetary Science Professor, talk about the advancements in astroid hunting. I remember thinking that, if I were to pursue a career in astronomy, this would be something that would interest me, along with other dreams of finding comets, planets, and so forth. As I watched from afar, I saw the advancements of science grow so fast that what seemed like a neat idea in college had already been surpassed by computers and software programs. I remember feeling a disconnect between science and the dream of being a "common citizen" that just happens to find amazing things in the night sky. Citizen science programs have shown me that my feelings were wrong. If anything, this is a GREAT time for hobbyists to help professional astronomy through citizen science programs. There are many fun, easy, and exciting ways to be involved with some of the best science going on today that make astronomy as "simple" as putting together a jigsaw puzzle with your grandmother.
Now, truth be told, I have only been hunting for planets for a few weeks... no discoveries I can claim as of yet. At the same time, as I have been going through the light data, I'm coming to find that I really don't care if the data I am crunching leads to the discovery of a planet or not. Don't get me wrong, it would be amazing if a planet would be found due to data I submitted. Nevertheless, the most important thing for me is that looking at the data has been absolutely fun, relaxing, and a nice break from my daily routine as a priest. It is becoming for me what puzzle making was to my grandmother.
Discussion: If you are a hobby astronomer, what projects in the world of professional science excite you? Post your thoughts and do a little digging online for citizen science programs. It wouldn't surprise me if you find something that would be very life-giving, while having the added benefit of contributing to scientific research.