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On Professor Stephen Hawking, Data Mining and Asteroid Bennu


Professor Stephen Hawking (c) JIm Campbell, AeroNewsNetwork, All Rights Reserved

Photo courtesy of Jim Campbell, AeroNewsNetwork, All Rights Reserved.

This week we lost a great mind and a giant of spirit. I was fortunate enough to meet him once on the occasion of his ZeroG flight pictured above and written about so eloquently by Dr. Diamandis.

I author this blog in tribute, borrowing liberally from his masterwork A Briefer History of Time, written by Professor Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.

Data mining for exceptions can change our understanding of the universe. Early Greeks looked up at the night sky and noted that all was fixed except the moon and 5 points of light that moved in complex patterns - they called them πλανήτης (planētēs)- Greek for Wanderer.

Later, in 1676, Ole Rømer, timed the eclipses of the Jupiter moon Io, Rømer, using differences in the timing of the re-appearances during different parts of the year to estimate the speed of light - by estimating that light would take about 22 minutes to travel a distance equal to the diameter of Earth's orbit around the Sun. Think about that ... recording precise timing, data mining the differential, and drawing that conclusion.

Flash forward a few hundred years to 1838 where Friedrich Bessel made the first successful parallax measurement ever, for the star 61 Cygni. Now this involves looking at the position of a star relative to all of the background stars, and looking for a shift over a six month period as earth is at opposite points of its orbit, measuring that angle and computing the distance. And as this only works for the closest stars, and as the change is minute ... its is truly amazing data mining.

Once astronomers could measure distances to some of the closest stars, apparent magnitude (how bright it looks from earth) could then be translated into absolute magnitude. Then by carefully noting spectra the type of star and its absolute magnitude could be grouped, leading to classification systems for stars. This set the stage for American astronomer Edwin Hubble to describe the redshift phenomenon and tie it to an expanding universe. His observations, revealed in 1929, showed that nearly all galaxies he observed are moving away.

All of this breaks down into carefully collecting data over time, analyzing the patterns of how data points change, and extrapolating meaning and value to the changes. Measuring star positions is literally child's play given the computational and optical advances available to even middle school kids - its easy to forgot these measurements used to take a lifetime of painstaking work. Witness the 10 year old Kathryn who was first to spot a super nova or the teenage asteroid hunters who vie to be the youngest in their country to claim an asteroid. The essence of asteroid hunting is to look for the wanderers and to automate that search with data mining AI image processing programs..

Flash forward to 1974 and Professor Hawking's prediction of radiation (information) escaping from a black hole, and then again to 2009 and the laboratory measurement of an analog of Hawking Radiation in laboratory created acoustic black holes, involving of all things a quantum connection called “entanglement.” This confirms Hawking’s prediction regarding black hole thermodynamics. The infinitesimal measurements involved here defy imagination.

But back to data mining for asteroids ... which brings us forward to Sept. 22, 2135, when asteroid Bennu has a 1 in 2,700 chance of hitting earth, causing considerable damage - but fear not - the Empire State Building size asteroid is not big enough to destroy all life on the planet. Its a good reminder to heed Professor Hawking's warning that we need to be a multi planet species to ensure our survival. Of course he also warns that AI could end mankind. Which reminds me I have to get back to work ...

Professor Stephen Hawking Born: January 8, 1942, Oxford, United Kingdom Died: March 14, 2018, Cambridge, United Kingdom. We are better for having known you.