Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#GRBm31 a teaching moment in the internet of things

Any doubts that the Internet of Things had arrived these were dispelled in an instant today. The Swift space telescope, the senitnel for detecting Gamma Ray Bursts raised an alert on the Gamma Ray Co-Ordinates Network, and slewed to the target to begin imaging. Astronomers around the world scrambled for their personal devices, re-tweeting their excitement, rallying the observational firepower available to image a tiny area in the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).

Image Credit: Swift Spacecraft, computer generated drawing. NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonet.

#GRBm31 surged to the very top of Twitter's trending list and the "lightcurve" of social media activity almost matched the supposed outburst of Gamma rays or Ultra Luminous X-rays (ULX) heading our way. [See Scott Manley's amusing tweet.] The whole event of course prompted the usual round of "milli-second humor" and hilarious tweets. Like: "What, something in a galaxy far, far away just blew up" and the usual round of deathstar references and starwars humor.

What happened will be discussed energetically over the next weeks, but it appears it was what the IT Industry would call a false positive, but not necessarily a bad thing.

Social media and the Internet of Things (IP devices intelligently wired to elevate raw data to the status of information, knowledge and wisdom that can be acted on) has the benefit of the instantaneous alert. However these alerts require context and verification. In this case scientists around the world rallied to verify the result using their standard methods and found a perfectly logical and rational reason as to why the alert was triggered, but there was no GRB or ULX event. The science team for the LIGO Gravity Wave detector, which was was offline for an upgrade, were relieved they hadn't missed anything.

What we actually had was a great teaching moment.SpaceI09 Blog was quick out of the blocks with a brilliant article on GRBs and what was happening. Science as always requires confirmation of results and over the next few hours alot of effort and comparison of results identified that a known Xray source had popped up above a detection threshold, possibly due to a nearby "hot pixel" in the image.

Nick Howes from the Faulkes Telescope Project suggested on Twitter "the neat thing about it was now lots more people know about GRBs an ULXs", and I certainly concur.

The lesson here is that instantaneous alerts come with their own set of risks, but if the communication flow is well managed and carefully explained to everyone, a situation like this can be a great opportunity to build a broader awareness of what has transpired.

Image Credit: P.Lake 300 Sec Luminance of the area in M31 concerning the alert.

Essentially an alert was triggered in the area between the two marked stars.

Of course there are the naysayers who have instant opinions as well and criticise organisations like NASA in situations like this. If a very bright GRB had gone off in Andromeda, astronomers would have years of data laid down for research over the coming years that would have had very broad implications particularly in gravity waves, neutron stars and black hole research. If it had gone off in our galaxy it would have been very, very serious situation indeed.

There will be a round of investigations and review and the process of teasing out the knowledge and wisdom derived from the raw data and the alert process will be better for it.

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