Making astronomical discoveries in Slack

How a team of researchers and observers broke new ground in solving the mysteries of the universe

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In August, Ryan Foley — a professor and researcher of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California Santa Cruz — told a group of students at the Danish university where he was guest lecturing that the likelihood of finding evidence of light being emitted from a gravitational wave source was, frankly, unlikely.

So when he received a message from his research assistant, Charlie Kilpatrick, not even a week later, that the team “found something,” Foley assumed he was the butt of a terribly unfunny joke. But Kilpatrick persisted, and the duo soon found themselves on Slack exchanging messages, data sets, and images with a team of researchers and observers in Santa Cruz and Chile.

“It only took us nine images to confirm it,” says Foley. “I can now point to the exact image in Slack and say, ‘This is the moment that started a whole new scientific field’.”


Collecting facts, figures, and other findings in Slack channels

Foley and his team of research students and postdoctoral fellows study a “funny area of astronomy called transient astrophysics.” It basically involves monitoring the sky for signs of major celestial activity, like exploding stars and supernovas, that can change on a human time scale (weeks, months, years).

celestial discoverySwope Supernova Survey 2017a, the first optical image of a gravitational wave source taken by Foley and his team. (1M2H Team / UC Santa Cruz & Carnegie Observatories / Ryan Foley)

They had a hypothesis that certain gravitational waves could exude light, not just energy, but so far they had never been able to prove it. And with odds of new discoveries being so slim, Foley knew he had to be doubly diligent in verifying that the team had spotted an actual never-before-seen event, not just an errant asteroid floating through the universe.

From a faculty office at the University of Copenhagen, Foley, Kilpatrick, and two more research students, Matt Seibart and Dave Coulter, hopped into a private channel on their Slack workspace — labelled GW170817, after the name of the research project — where they had previously been tracking all kinds of data around gravitational waves. Coulter had even written a custom integration which automatically pulls random data around new transient events from disparate web servers, and formats that information neatly into easily readable and instantly usable information.

“You can get up to 30 emails a day easily that’s just a name, a coordinate in the sky, and maybe a date, which isn’t all that useful,” says Foley. “Dave’s bot grabs all that raw data and combines it with a lot of contextual information from other databases, which then gets pushed right into our channels. If the data passes certain criteria of something we’re looking for, he’s set it so that stuff is in bold and easy to see.”

Rather than look up 20 different sources to find the data they need, the team now refers mainly to one channel in Slack. This allowed them to quickly determine that the new event was captured by a telescope in Chile, so Foley, Coulter and Seibart started setting the targets and observation plan for the night to share with their observers located there, all of whom share that same private Slack channel.

In Santa Cruz, Kilpatrick and another grad student, Cesar Rojas Bravo, eagerly watched the channel for new images so they could process and examine them. By the ninth one, they finally found what they were looking for: light.


An in-channel conversation between Foley, Kilpatrick, and Coulter where they discuss their discovery in real-time. (1M2H Team / UC Santa Cruz & Carnegie Observatories / David Coulter)

“Slack didn’t play a small role, it was an essential part of this discovery,” he says. “It’s a critical part of understanding the full story.”

With the minute-by-minute conversations unfolding on Slack, and the corresponding timestamps to show when everything took place, Foley didn’t have a hard time compiling a final report of their findings. He even insisted that a copy of the team’s Slack conversation be cited in the scientific journal where the discovery was officially announced.

“Slack didn’t play a small role, it was an essential part of this discovery,” he says. “It’s a critical part of understanding the full story.”

All of which is tremendously exciting, but still raises the question: What exactly does a discovery like this mean for humankind?

“It’s one of these things where you never know what’s going to happen,” says Foley. “Think about digital cameras: there was no market for that technology outside of astronomy where people wanted to take these really precise images, but now essentially everybody has a digital camera in their pocket at all times.”

“From my perspective, these are the sorts of things that make life worth living,” he continues. “It’s really pushing our culture and our society. One of the most important things that we can do, one of the most human endeavors that we have, is to find our place in the universe.”


Lima Al-Azzeh can occasionally spot the Big Dipper.

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