To the stars and beyond with eScience

Nieuws | de redactie
19 februari 2013 | “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Astronomy has always been a discipline for pioneers, also in regard to eScience and the use of big data. ASTRON-manager Marco de Vos: “We have to pioneer, otherwise we can’t get where we want to go.”

“The Netherlands is among the best countries in the world for astronomy. One of the main reasons is that we are willing to look beyond borders,” tells De Vos. “In the Netherlands, we were one of the first to start with radio astronomy. In order to do so, large computational devices are necessary, so we became one of the leading customers at universities.”

A new way of thinking

Marco de Vos is also an integrator at the Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC), representing the field of astronomy. Despite having a key role within the Integrator team, sharing the trail blazing experiences of his discipline, De Vos also recognizes that  a great deal can be learnt from taking a multidisciplinary view. “We thought we could do everything by ourselves. The development of the Low Frequency Array-radio telescope (LOFAR) helped us a lot, since its technology forces us to work in a multidisciplinary fashion.”

According to De Vos, this stimulated a new way of thinking. “In the past we worked solely with professionals educated at ASTRON, but later we started working with high performance computation experts who had a very specific education in ICT. We also hired people with a strong mathematical background in the field of algorithms. This shift helped us to create new possibilities and opportunities.”

At the eScience Center this multidisciplinary approach flourishes. “It is fantastic, we learn a lot from this multidisciplinary focus, although there are large differences between different disciplines,” says De Vos. “In some fields of science it’s about shifting boundaries, making new things happen. For us it’s more a disruptive process, we have to shift, otherwise we get stuck.”

‘Not invented here’-syndrome

As a pioneering discipline in working with large amounts of data, astronomy is often the first to discover new methods that can help other disciplines. “That’s what eScience should be about. If you solve a problem in astronomy it will automatically create applications for other fields of science, like for example genomics. These cross-overs between different disciplines are stimulated at NLeSC.”

Despite these and other efforts, Marco de Vos still sees a very strong ‘not invented here’-syndrome at the level of individual disciplines. “In astronomy we suffer from this as well, we tend to start over again by building specific software, while software that, with some small adjustments, would do the job is already developed in other scientific fields. I don’t believe in generic software, local optimization is always needed, but we have to draw from each other’s work.”

One of the missions of the eScience Center is to identify those parts that can be generalized at an early stage. “At ASTRON we are currently working with GPU-clusters to make heavy calculations. We make optimizations and the knowledge we obtain during these calculations can be applied to seismic data as well.

eScience engineers have to signal those potential cross-overs and think ‘wait a second, we know where to get the necessary tips and tricks’”, explains De Vos. “This is why NLeSC is so important to provide a collaborative working environment for the eScience engineers who can then transfer experiences and skills from one project and one discipline to other disparate scientific areas”.

Better science, through smart ICT

As an eScience Integrator, Marco de Vos has to carry out these ‘good practices’ in different scientific fields, including his own. “Every eScience Integrator has his own way of doing that, I think. I stimulate people, try to provoke them. Recently I shared one of those ideas in a large European project, that’s how I try to create support for eScience.”

Working with big data and the corresponding software demands different approaches than fundamental science. De Vos is associated with the Hanze Institute of Technology as an applied researcher. “Working with ‘big data’ requires a good mix of researchers and applied professionals. If you manage to create that kind of mix, there are enormous possibilities on the labor market that could give the Netherlands a huge competitive advantage.”

“At the Hanze University of Applied Sciences we are currently working on a new Master degree. I really want to include some eScience concepts in this curriculum. It’s not only about measuring, you also have to understand what you are measuring.” As an astronomer at ASTRON, Marco de Vos is well aware of that. “We always had the pleasure to be pioneers. Now we can demonstrate our knowledge in the eScience Center. Better science, through smart ICT, that’s what it’s all about.”

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