Open Cosmics: cosmic-ray physics for everyone! | #mozsprint 2016

Last year, at the #mozsprint 2015 CERN site, Achintya Rao brought together a group of physicists, engineers, computer scientists and science communicators who shared a fascination with cosmic rays. They were quickly sold on the idea that everyone can (and should!) analyse cosmic-ray data. Over the past 12 months, we’ve seen the idea evolve and grow. The core ideas of the project inspired another group to build a crowd-sourced particle-identification platform at CERN webfest 2015 and MozFest 2015.

Today, Achintya and others are focusing on the original idea around a common analysis framework for cosmic-ray data. I interviewed Achintya and Hugo Day from the Open Cosmics team to learn about cosmics rays, their project and how you can help during our Global Sprint 2016, June 2-3.

What are cosmic rays?

In the early twentieth century, following the discovery of radioactivity, physicists observed radiation all around them. They concluded that the particles were produced by radioactive elements in the earth. However, in 1912, Victor Hess got into a hot-air balloon with a radiation detector and demonstrated that the farther away from the surface of the earth you were the greater was the observed radiation. It was thus revealed that this radiation has an extra-planetary origin. Although the origin of cosmic rays is mostly understood, they remain somewhat mysterious to this day. We know that cosmic rays are high-energy particles that bombard the earth’s atmosphere and produce showers of particles that we can detect on the surface of the planet. They play an important role in particle-physics research.

What challenges are there now working with cosmic-ray data?

There are several cosmic-ray experiments around the world that are used in education. However, these experiments (and physics experiments in general) tend to have individual characteristics that need to be taken into account when doing data analysis. This means it’s not trivial to share raw data between experiments, even though some open questions in cosmic-ray science (coincidence rates of particle showers around the globe, for example) would benefit from larger sample sizes. We aim to provide a common framework where data (processed or raw) can be shared in a meaningful way to address these types of questions.

What is Open Cosmics?

Open Cosmics aims at providing a common analysis framework for different data sets of cosmic-ray detectors to look at open questions in cosmic-ray science that cross experimental boundaries, and to allow citizen scientists to analyse cosmic-ray data without necessitating in-depth detector knowledge needed for some analyses. Open Cosmics debuted at #mozsprint 2015, when we brought together a group of interested folk, including physicists, engineers and computer scientists, to discuss the feasibility of such a common framework.

How will Open Cosmics help collaboration and open science?

One of our aims at Open Cosmics is to foster conversation and collaboration between the many cosmic-ray projects. We are in touch with projects in the UK, the Netherlands and the US to access their data and help them store these data on public repositories (like ZENODO) with appropriate licences. We are also diving into these datasets to establish a minimal structure for a common, cross-project format for the processed data. Cosmic Pi (of which Hugo is a member) is also a key partner of Open Cosmics, and we’re hoping that we can provide the analysis tools needed to study all the data that the Cosmic Pi network will collect in the months and years to come.

How can I test the Open Cosmics data format?

Cosmic-ray projects that currently offer public data include HiSPARC, QuarkNet and Pierre Auger. We are in talks with some other projects to get our hands on their data to define the Open Cosmics data format based on common parameters. We’re still in early stages with this, though, and don’t have a format to play with as yet. We should have a preliminary format ready by the end of the Global Sprint. See our roadmap for precise plans.

What problems have you run into while working on Open Cosmics?

Accessing and converting datasets into a common format has been problematic. Cosmic-ray experiments typically have defined aims and their computational infrastructure is centred around this. Sometimes this leads to compatibility issues between data formats (i.e. is your data based around individual cosmic-ray events, or around changing parameters for a given detector?) preventing the sets being combined in a meaningful way to examine statistically rare events or variations. In addition, as we mention above, not all datasets are publicly available or shareable yet; one aim of the project is to facilitate and make existing datasets available in some open license, ideally with minimal restrictions on use.

What kind of skills do I need to help you work on Open Cosmics?

Experience with data structures would be very valuable! If you are a programming wizard, you can probably help us write code for converting the raw data into the Open Cosmics data format. We’re also working on establishing a physics case for shared cosmic-ray data and would value any input from those who have some experience with particle physics. Comments from those involved with science education or with other citizen-science projects are also welcome. And you can also help with visualising data from the cosmic-ray events (on a map, for example).

How can others help you during the Mozilla Science Global Sprint, June 2-3?

We want to set up a basic Jupyter notebook with some of the available open cosmic-ray data to plot the variation of cosmic-ray flux, for example, with latitude and longitude or with seasons. You can help set this up, test it, break it and improve it. We will be working on importing existing and future cosmic-ray datasets to ZENODO and will need some help with this of course. We’re also going to attempt to implement some of the background functionality for importing the datasets from the repositories to run the Jupyter notebooks.

Bonus question: Where is your Research Fox sticker?

Achintya: My Research Foxes adorn my phone and keep several stickers on my laptop company.




Come join us wherever you are June 2-3 at the Mozilla Science Global Sprint to work on Open Cosmics and pick up your own Research Fox! Have your own project? Submissions are open for projects.