Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Looking Back, Moving On

Well, in the two weeks since my last post I've been coming to terms with my coming unemployment, and doing a lot of thinking about where to take my life from here. I don't have anything definite to report yet, but I think I'm finally ready to start looking around.

I went to a seminar at Subaru last Monday that was very helpful in this regard. The seminar was on Data Visualization, by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and in the process of watching incredible visualizations of hundreds of thousands of galaxies and learning about how correct color map choice can dramatically increase the chances of a doctor noticing problems with your arteries, I came to a realization: I really enjoy data visualization.

During the talk I found myself thinking about how the times I'd had the most fun at my job working for the JAC and EAO were when I was designing systems and writing scripts to visualize data. Looking back even further, I've always loved seeing things like artists' impressions of exotic astronomical systems, and when I first discovered graphics programs like Inkscape, the GIMP, and Blender, one of the purposes I put them towards after figuring out how to use them was making my own such artist's impressions. (Some of my astronomy-related artwork on this blog can be seen here.) I'm a very visual person, and love figuring out new ways to make abstract concepts and abstruse ideas more comprehensible.

In fact, speaking of systems for visualizing data, I'm reminded that I never did introduce the project that occupied the majority of my time at work last year, the SCUBA-2 Calibration Database. This is a webpage linked from the EAO website that allows access to a database containing information on every calibration for SCUBA-2, the JCMT's powerful sub-millimeter continuum camera. You can search dates, date ranges, or pick a semester and project code to get a list of all calibrations taken on nights that project took data. You can filter by specific calibrators if you want, and when the results have been returned there are download links that will take you to the Canadian Advanced Data Centre where you can download all raw and reduced files associated with an observation.

Of course, the best part in my opinion is the option to graph the results you get. You have to enable the option, but doing so will let you graph anything from a single night's worth of observations to every single calibration ever taken with SCUBA-2. I had a lot of fun learning how to get a dynamically created image served up on command and writing the graphing script to get an interesting and useful image out. I've been adding some new features I always wanted to get around to in to my development version recently, so there will also be some new stuff released in the next two weeks.

(If you're wondering what these “Arcsec” and “Peak” FCFs you can plot are, FCF stands for Flux Calibration Factor, and they're essentially the ratio of a particular number to what that number would be if there were no pesky atmosphere getting in the way and attenuating the energy received from it. Put simply, Peak FCFs deal with the maximum brightness of an object and are very sensitive to proper focus of the telescope, while Arcsecond FCFs deal with the total energy received and thus should be more resistant to small changes in focus. Being out of focus moves the energy around in the image, but you have to be really out of focus for it to move outside the area being measured. The gray horizontal bar across the graph represents the range the FCFs should generally be in; as you can see, there are plenty of times this is not the case, and there a whole host of reasons why this is not the case ranging from dish deformation due to residual heat at the start of the night to long-term drifts in the Water Vapor Meter that estimates the transparency of the astmosphere.)

Anyway, that's how things have been going for me. I'm looking to start getting back into graphic design a bit after being introduced by a coworker to the work of a friend of his dealing with using Blender for scientific data visualization, so who knows, I might have some new projects to show here in the near future. We'll see! A hui hou!

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