Big Data Analysis in Astronomy at the IAC

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Participants at the 30th annual Winter School of Astrophysics.

This November, the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) in La Laguna, Tenerife held its 30th annual Winter School of Astrophysics. This year the focus was on Big Data Analysis in Astronomy, and so LIV.DAT student Brandon Kelly was in attendance alongside a wide variety of PhD students, post-docs and researchers from around the world. The topics covered included machine learning, deep learning and supervised learning when applied to astronomy, as well as the challenges which may be faced in data processing with regards to future surveys.

Speakers in attendance included Caltech’s Professor Djorgovski who gave a general overview of machine learning techniques including a very interesting talk on the optimal design of coloured plots, Professor Mario Juric from the University of Washington who discussed the data challenges expected in upcoming surveys with a notable focus on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), Dalya Baron from Tel-Aviv University, a PhD student who discussed unsupervised machine learning and dimensional reduction techniques in remarkable depth, University of Groningen’s Professor Michael Biehl who explained the mathematical principles underlying supervised learning, and the University of Paris-Diderot’s Dr Marc Huertas-Company, who covered deep learning. The lectures are available on the conference website.

In between lectures, the participants were able to peruse the ongoing poster session which spanned the 5 days of the conference. A large number of posters were on display, one of which was Brandon’s own poster presenting a comparison between different segmentation software packages. Segmentation is the process of automatically allocating pixels to specific objects. This process has many uses throughout astronomy, but Brandon is using it in order to robustly separate the noisy background from the desired signal. In the poster presented, Brandon presented a comparison between three of these pieces of software, which led to illuminating and insightful discussions with the author of one of the software packages, as well as a member of a team writing an upcoming piece of segmentation software.

One of the highlights of the conference was the trip to the Teide observatory, where participants were given a tour of four of the telescopes situated in Izana, 2,390 metres above sea level. Included in the tour was a solar telescope, a 1 metre telescope operated by the IAC, and a larger telescope operated by ESO. In addition to the observatory tour, the participants were also given a tour of the IAC itself, and were shown the library housing the first editions of the Astrophysical Journal, and the Monthly Notices of the Royal astronomical Society as well as several optics laboratories for the optimal design and construction of lenses and mirrors.