Have you ever had the desire to discover something of significance? If so, welcome to the human race! For varying reasons, the human person is wired to explore and discover. Some forms of exploration can be rather basic, such as the desire to find food and water for survival. Some forms can be self-seeking, such as the acquisition of wealth found in a hidden treasure. Some discoveries are timeless, such as finding love with another person. While other explorations speak to adventure, such as studying creation to understand our place in the universe. Despite the many reasons why we explore our world, it is plain to see that exploration is a natural part of the human experience.
Over the past two weeks, I have enjoyed a small taste of the explore’s heart. Bob Trembly and Brenda Frye have recently offered wonderful reflections on citizen science programs. These programs allow science enthusiasts the opportunity to work side by side with professionals in numerous fields to help advance our scientific knowledge of the world. I have recently participated in a citizen science program that looks for supernovae. Darryl Wright and his team leads this program, using the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (known as Pan-Starrs) on Mount Haleakala in Hawaii. My job as a citizen scientist is to sift through the images that Pan-Starrs’ computer identifies as potential supernovae. Often times Pan-Starrs falsely identifies asteroids, camera glitches, and off center images as supernovae. Citizen science volunteers help identify these different image types, submitting the best supernova candidates to the Pan-Starrs team.
After all the images are reviewed multiple times by volunteers, the Pan-Starrs team submit the best supernova candidates to the Transit Name Server (the official registry of supernova candidates). One of the exciting incentives for citizen science volunteers participating in this program is if a potential supernova is submitted by the Pan-Starrs team to the Transit Name Server, the first three volunteers that submit the image will be named as collaborators in the discovery. Personally, it was exciting to see my username (bigpapaj) on two of these submissions. Though it may mean little to most people, one of my dreams since childhood was to contribute something, no matter how small, to the advancement of science. It was a humbling moment to think that this moment may have come.
These are images of one of the supernova candidates I submitted to the Pan-Starrs team.
For reasons of wanting to write this post and trying to learn more about the process of confirming a supernova, I contacted Darryl Wright. I asked his permission to use the above images for this post (which he granted since these images are now public) and asked how a supernova candidate becomes a confirmed supernova? Dr. Wright explained that all the submissions they make cannot be confirmed as supernova based on the images alone. Many things can literally drift into the image, making it hard to determine whether or not what is observed is a real supernova.
The only way to confirm a supernova is by studying its light spectra. Pan-Starrs and other groups that hunt for supernovae make their findings public so other groups that do spectra work (like PESSTO) might decide to study their submissions. Given the expense of time involved in doing spectra research, only a small number of supernova submissions are selected for this verification, leaving most candidates unconfirmed.
From the confirmed supernovae, an even smaller group are then selected for full scientific research. Those that are chosen for full research are supernovae that are different in kind from those that have already been studied. Each supernova contains a wealth of information that help scientists understand the nature of these celestial explosions. The reason why supernovae are so important is that their explosions create the heavier elements needed for life to develop in our universe. From this standpoint, supernovae literally “seed” planets with these heavy elements. The better we understand supernovae, the better we can understand this seeding process and how the elements needed for life on our planet came about.
When I understood what goes into confirming a supernova, I began to realize that my small contribution to science might be a lot smaller than I first thought. Nevertheless, supernova hunting has become a fun hobby and I thank Dr. Wright for putting this program together and for the support he provides to his volunteers.
It’s amazing to think that a small, white dot on a black and white photograph can lead to understanding how the physical stuff we need to exist came about. It reminds me that even small discoveries are not that small, since they help provide a better understanding of our world and feed the natural curiosity we all have to explore. When we allow our inner desire to explore to take flight, we quickly find ourselves looking for more than our material origins, but also our spiritual origins.
Though scientific study and philosophical/theological questions about meaning and purpose are two different types of questions, we can see a bridge emerge between the two that is our desire to explore and discover. We need to explore our world to understand its material qualities. We also need to explore meaning and purpose to understand who we are in God’s eyes. Both explorations point to the question in the title of this post: Why is humanity wired to explore? The answer to this question is rather simple: There are things in this world worth discovering and the Source of this world wants to be known.
As we begin this week, I would invite you to prayerfully reflect upon this question: What are the things God has inspired you to explore? Whether your desire is to understand the world we live in and/or explore questions of meaning and purpose, realize that both types of questions ultimately point to a common origin. Our exploration of this world and our lives prepares us for life’s final exploration in which we will pass through the womb of death from this life to the next. It is through this journey that we will discover the answer to one of the most fundamental questions of life: Who am I in God’s eyes? May all of us discover today the beginnings of the answer to this question that affirms that all of us, to quote Pope Francis, are sinners who have been looked upon by God with love and mercy.
* The Pan-Starrs Project is hosted by Zooniverse.