.Astronomy X Baltimore: Mining the Past, Making Space for the Future

S. Kendrew (skendrew[at]stsci.edu)

From September 24th to 27th, the Space Telescope Science Institute hosted the 10th edition of the .Astronomy ("dot astronomy") conference. This annual event brings together a community of astronomy researchers, communicators, and educators to share their work and ideas for how technology, in particular software and the Web, can advance our research, collaboration, and communication. For the 10th anniversary, the organizing committee chose as theme "Mining the Past, Making Space for the Future"—exploring the duality of "past" and "future" that is an inherent theme in astronomy, as the science of the history and future of our Universe. For the conference itself, the anniversary marked the opportunity to examine the impact of our past events, and look towards the future.

.Astronomy was first organized in 2008, during the exciting early growth years for social media and blogging platforms, and the increasing standardization of web technology. Scientists were using the web in innovative ways for their research, as with the citizen-science project Galaxy Zoo; and for science-communication projects such as science blogs and podcasts. The International Year of Astronomy in 2009 played a significant role in mobilizing the community around such public engagement projects.

.Astronomy brought novel approaches in conference programming from the tech world, such as participant-led discussion sessions ("unconferences"), and hack days, to astronomy for the first time. Its focus is uniquely on how we do astronomy—on methods as well as outcomes—and on how the web can support more open, transparent, and equitable science. Over the past decade, this has increasingly included discussions on career development, diversity and equity in the astronomy community.

With its commitment to open, accessible science, the Space Telescope Science Institute shares the values of .Astronomy. The institute was therefore an excellent partner and host for this 10th edition of the conference.

Over four days, .Astronomy brought around 65 participants to Baltimore from all over the world—from North America, Europe, Southern Africa, and Australia. We were particularly excited to welcome our invited speakers, whose talks stimulated discussions and provided inspiration for the unconference session topics. Dr. Alcione Mora of the European Space Agency presented an overview of science, data, and challenges of the Gaia mission, whose new data releases are providing revolutionary new insights into the history and dynamics of our Galaxy and its nearest neighbors.

Prof. James Howison of the University of Texas at Austin talked about the role of software in scientific research in his talk entitled "Software Makes Science Better, but Is It Research? Arguments for a Research Agenda in Scientific Software Work." Prof. Sarah Hörst of the Johns Hopkins University presented her innovative laboratory experiments to simulate (exo-)planetary atmosphere chemistry, in which the pathway into her chosen research field was woven into the narrative of the research itself.

Looking towards the future, NASA's Dr. Jane Rigby gave an overview of future NASA space missions; and Prof. Andy Connolly of the University of Washington showed progress on the ground-breaking Large Synoptic Survey Mission (LSST), currently under construction in Chile. The demands on data processing and automated classification from the LSST data are a major driver of research into machine learning and artificial intelligence in astronomy—subjects of significant interest amongst the .Astronomy community.

Our final invited speaker was Prof. Jarita Holbrook of the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, discussing her anthropological research into the experiences of astronomers of different ethnicities and genders, at different career stages, in South Africa as well as the United States. Her work gives a unique perspective on the now-common debates on diversity and inclusion in the scientific community, and highlights the importance of a cross-disciplinary approach to sociological questions in academia and research: to understand the human aspects of research, we should seek out and collaborate with experts in this field.

A number of contributed talks from our participants spoke similarly of the connections between the technical and human aspects of our research. Dr. Brian Nord of Fermilab/University of Chicago spoke of the ethical questions in the development of artificial intelligence tools, and Dr. Dara Norman (NOAO) described how the NOAO Data Lab is designed to help make research fairer and more equitable. Improving access to data is an important part of building an inclusive community by removing the power from human gatekeepers, thus leveling the playing field for all. The need for interdisciplinarity in science, and teaching science and technology studies alongside science, was demonstrated by Lauren Chambers' (STScI) impressive work at the intersection of Astronomy and African American Studies. 

During the first introductory day ("Day Zero") and the unconference sessions, a number of participants gave tutorials on technical tools, such as the interactive plotting library Bokeh; multi-dimensional data visualization with Glue; cloud computing; Github; Flask; astropy; astroquery; and others. There were career-focused discussions, including one led by one of our Google participants and founder of .Astronomy, Dr. Rob Simpson. Some of these skills were put on display during the hack day, where participants produced new proof-of-concept projects such as an interactive display of FITS images using Bokeh; astropy for exploration of Gaia DR2 data; custom data analysis tutorials in jupyter notebooks; and many more.

As with the previous nine editions of the conference, .Astronomy X provided a wide range of inspirational talks and discussions. The conference is frequently cited as "a place to talk about the topics other conferences don’t cover"; we feel that the culture in research is connected to research itself. The conference was supported by the American Astronomical Society, who provided generous travel grants for some of our junior participants, including dedicated dependent-care grants for participants with extra expenses related to caring responsibilities. As diversity is a high priority for .Astronomy, we were particularly pleased to offer this support.

dot Astronomy ten group photo

.Astronomy X took place at the Space Telescope Science Institute from 24 to 27 September 2018. The organizing committee consisted of Sarah Kendrew (ESA, Chair), Arfon Smith (Co-chair), Erik Tollerud, Joshua Peek, Ivelina Momcheva, Tom Donaldson and Susan Kassin. The organizers are grateful to the STScI leadership and events team for supporting the conference; and to the AAS for providing generous financial support. The next edition of .Astronomy will be held in Toronto, in October 2019.