Red Dots: Open Notebook Science

A conversation with Guillem Anglada-Escudé, the scientist who led the discovery of our closest exoplanet

29 September 2017
What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • How the Red Dots campaign is bringing the public closer to cutting-edge astronomy
  • What it’s like to be part of a project that might make the next big discovery
  • The benefits and challenges of an Open Notebook Science experiment
In January 2016, a pioneering outreach research campaign called Pale Red Dot was launched. It not only aimed to search for Earth-like exoplanets around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, but also to give the public the opportunity to follow that quest as it happened. The result was amazing: an Earth-mass exoplanet was found orbiting in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri! This year, the team behind the Pale Red Dot campaign is back with another initiative called Red Dots, looking for exoplanets using ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and other instruments around the globe. The project is even more ambitious as it expands to hunt for exoplanets around two more of our closest neighbouring stars: Barnard's Star (6 light-years away) and Ross 154 (9.7 light-years away). Plus, to add to the excitement, the general public and the scientific community now both have access to observational data from Proxima Centauri and can participate in the search themselves. For a first-hand look at the campaign, the science and the people that make it happen, we had a chat with Guillem Anglada-Escudé, the lead scientist of the Red Dots team.

Q: Considering the success of the Pale Red Dot campaign and the addition of two more stars to the search, what are your expectations for Red Dots?

A: In terms of the science, we hope to repeat in-depth searches on a few more very nearby M dwarf stars. Pale Red Dot showed that focusing the campaign on specific objects, as opposed to surveying, is more efficient for detecting these very challenging signals of exoplanets.

The question of how research develops is not that simple and it’s hard to predict. Along with ESO’s HARPS, we’re also obtaining data from other observatories — including the planet hunter CARMENES — on the same and some extra stars, plus there are other follow-up efforts going on. As more information is coming in and other people keep researching the field, we need to continuously adapt our strategy to provide solid and credible results.

Not knowing the result in advance, but knowing there is potential for a breakthrough, is very exciting

Using well-educated guesses from what we know about exoplanets in general, we expect that either Barnard’s Star or Ross 154 should be home to a couple of interesting planets. But it’s another story whether or not our observations will be able to confirm the existence of these planets. We already obtained abundant data on Barnard’s Star and it looked promising because it’s a rather old and quiet star. Ross 154 is younger and more active. We clearly see it varying quite a bit, like shaking back and forth in tune with its rotation period. However, we think we might be able to handle this variability in this kind of intensive campaign. A lot of work is ahead for sure. We’ll see!

Q: How does it feel to being part of something that can trigger the next huge discovery?

A: Not knowing the result in advance, but knowing there is potential for a breakthrough, is very exciting, especially when you’re given the resources to try something that hasn’t been tried before and you’re convinced that you can make a big difference.

But it’s important to note that most of the time, things don’t work out like we expect. I’d say only one tenth of the things one tries leads to a significant breakthrough. Also, from the conception to the execution of the observations, there’s not much to do but wait, which is why we astronomers tend to multitask quite a bit. Speaking realistically, it’s possible (even likely!) that the next breakthrough I will participate in will actually have nothing to do with Red Dots or even Proxima b.

Q: This project aims to bridge the gap between astronomers and the general public — you're communicating science as it happens. This is not how scientists usually work. Why are you taking this approach?

A: We felt that as with the Pale Red Dot campaign, which was a deep search for planets around Proxima Centauri, people would get naturally excited about this. During Pale Red Dot we tried to explain the science as it happened while putting things in context with our outreach and with guest articles from specialists. It worked well because the community reacted enthusiastically — and, being realistic, because we got an awesome result. But there seemed to be a need to go deeper into the detail, or at least give people the opportunity to watch the process more closely, by either providing them access to the data or by showing the discussions and activity logs around the observations.

It seemed to be the right thing to do, plus there is a demand for transparency and understanding of the processes of science at a global scale

Why we are doing this? It seemed to be the right thing to do, plus there is a demand for transparency and understanding of the processes of science at a global scale. I think there is intrinsic value in doing research and holding discussions in an open environment. You never know what people could contribute; plus, it might help make the world a bit better.

One good thing about science, or at least the basic physical sciences, is that it doesn’t make cultural or political judgements. The knowledge science provides is objectively beneficial for all. This leads to very fruitful international collaborations, even between scientists from countries in open conflict. The act of working together needs to be tested and learned, and communicating science and being open to seriously receive feedback — even cooperate — is part of that.

I personally believe that research institutions should either encourage scientists to do serious communication of their work as part of their duties, or they should provide the means make it happen.

Q: What has been the response from the community?

A: A couple of groups have been looking at the data as it comes through. Discussing with them as the campaign unfolds should help us to reach a better consensus on the interpretation of the results at the end. Experiments hardly ever happen as planned. The scientists involved in an experiment often lose perspective, and the scientists outside it can have trouble following the subtleties of the work. I think that making the data public and discussing it on-the-fly is a healthy exercise, at least from time to time. All this said, my colleagues and I were expecting more action, especially a bit more open discussion on what the data was showing. Others were afraid that other scientists would take the data and take advantage of us, but I see none of that happening, meaning we can probably try to be more open in general. In a sense, being open protects us against the possibility of being scooped, because everyone — including our colleagues and journal editors — know where the data is coming from. They would recognise if someone took the data and used it to publish astounding results.

Q: How has the scientific community reacted to this project? Is there a difference to how they are getting involved?

A: The reaction of the scientific community is hard to gauge. In official terms, the scientific community expresses itself in research papers, which cite previous relevant work. The paper reporting the detection of Proxima b has certainly been cited many times, so the result itself had a significant impact. Then there is more informal feedback, in terms of receiving invitations to give talks, seminars and visit places. At least personally, I have made quite a number of excursions and gave a lot of public talks last year. So, yes, there seems to be a positive reaction at least from the broader community, although the “community” is not a uniform mass with just one opinion.

Q: You're involving amateur astronomers. How is that working out? What are your expectations of them?

A: Yes, this is something I personally wanted to try. Firstly, I would have loved to have been given the opportunity to contribute to a professional science experiment when I was younger — I never did this as a child or before becoming a “professional” researcher. Maybe I wasn’t in the right environment when I was young, but I enjoy offering the opportunity to others. Secondly, there are a lot of clever and enthusiastic people in the world, and just because someone is not a career astronomer doesn’t mean they are not ready to perform excellent science. Good science is about formulating relevant questions, and paying attention to the details and context.

Technology is awesome these days, and flexibility and availability can be more valuable than a massive investment on large facilities. Amateur, or “pro-am”, astronomers are a perfect example of this. Again, the knowledge gained will be for all at the end, so everyone should have the chance to participate at some level. I must say that some of the light curves being produced by pro-am are of amazing quality, much better that what I could do. I am sure that a lot of the measurements will be used in the papers to come, and I would really like to work on new projects with them in the future.

Q: You've started vlogs — what are they about? What should we expect from these?

A: Our video blogs, or vlogs, are summaries of the activities of the last few weeks. The idea behind them is that, since our articles have a limited audience, we thought we might be able to offer the same content in a format that is easier to digest. I was lucky to have a summer intern (Harriet Brettle) and a PhD student (Clark Baker) here, who could work in tandem to manage the social media, prepare summaries and film the vlogs. Clark was especially keen, so we did it as an experiment. I can tell you that we didn’t get millions of YouTube hits, but some of our audience seem to better appreciate this format. It took a while to determine the structure and format (including length and content style, logos, and timing), but it’s easier now. It’s not as hard or as time consuming as I imagined, so with some more resources we’ll do great next time.

There must be life somewhere else

Q: And for the final you think there’s life elsewhere in the Universe? And will we ever be able to find it?

A: There must be life somewhere else. I tend to be very optimistic about detecting evidence of it on nearby planets in the Solar System or around nearby stars. However, complex and technological civilisations do not seem to be the rule. Extrapolating our rate of progress, we should be able to “conquer” the Solar System in a few hundred years — or maybe thousands, but still a negligible period of time — and make our presence obvious to others who are searching. However, we see no clear evidence of this happening elsewhere, and people on Earth are seriously looking. This makes me think that either technological civilisations have short lifespans (we might be the next example…), or life is not as flexible as we think and it only thrives under very specific Earth-like conditions. Either way, we or our grandchildren might be able to find out pretty soon!

Numbers in this article

3 Number of stars being studied by the Red Dots campaign
4.2 Light-years between Proxima Centauri and Earth
90 Number of observing nights in the campaign

Biography Guillem Anglada-Escudé

Guillem Anglada-Escudé devoted his PhD thesis in astrophysics (2007) at University of Barcelona/Spain to ESA’s Gaia Space Astrometry mission. After postdoctoral positions in exoplanet research at the Carnegie Institution for Science and the University of Göttigen, Guillem was appointed Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London in 2015. In 2016, he led the Pale Red Dot campaign, which resulted in the robust detection of Proxima b, the nearest exoplanet to the Solar System.