Australia - part 117 Nov 2015
As a working astronomer I get to travel the world, and this is one part of the job that makes me feel particularly privileged. Several times a year I get to travel to remote mountain tops or vibrant cities of the world, and spend time with interesting, talented and fun people. After all these years, one country still formed a hole in my map of the world visited: Australia. After all I'd heard about Australia from friends and colleagues who have visited or lived there, the country has been top of my must-see list for several years now. The final push I needed was our decision to host .Astronomy in Sydney some months ago - that was it, flights booked. So this year I finally made it to Australia, and I've not been disappointed.
I spent almost 3 weeks in Sydney, and in this time I attended 2 conferences and met many local astronomers and instrument builders from the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales and the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO). I also managed to squeeze in a quick stop at Swinburne in Melbourne.
This year saw the 7th edition of .Astronomy and the first time we held the conference outside of Europe and the US, and in the Southern hemisphere - .Astro now feels properly global, and I hope we can continue to bring the conference to other parts of the world. The organisers in Australia - Amanda Bauer, James Allen, Vanessa Moss, Rob Hollow and Arna Karick - did a fantastic job of infusing .Astro with local Aussie colour and once again the conference was inspirational, eye opening and a lot of fun. More about that later.
In a nice confluence of events, .Astronomy took place the week after ADASS, a major annual conference for the astronomy data and software community now in its 25th year. The effect of this was more spill-over between the two events than I'd noted before. I was very pleased to be invited to speak at ADASS about the legacy and impact of .Astronomy. It felt all wrong, by the way, to be giving this talk instead of Rob Simpson, who has been the heart behind .Astronomy for so many years, but I was happy to be able to represent the so-called conference "brainstrust".
Writing the talk got me thinking about the "big-picture" value of .Astronomy: what have we achieved, how have we changed, where are we going? The main message I tried to convey was one of community building for the astronomy of the future. The web will be an essential aspect of storing, disseminating, exploring and analysing the large data volumes from our observational facilities (and simulations). In the era of SKA and LSST, the process of turning data into new knowledge will proceed very differently from our current methods. Optimising that process will depend entirely on having people with the right skills developing the right tools. In a sense, we've already entered the so-called data-driven era with the generations of Sloan surveys, Gaia etc, and the sheer survey speed of SKA and LSST will add the hugely under-explored time dimension into the mix.
I think the value of .Astronomy is that we bring together the astronomers who have these skills combined with an appetite for innovation. At ADASS, most participants have software development in their job description, as a result they typically have more experience, background knowledge and real-world development experience than the .Astro crowd, and I think we can learn a lot from them. So having these 2 conferences alongside each other was a great opportunity to bridge these communities. I hope we can continue that in the future.