We’ll always have Paris

Blog by David Weinberg (SDSS-III Project Scientist)

One-hundred and thirty scientists from four continents gathered in Paris for the second annual meeting of the SDSS-III collaboration, hosted by the laboratoire AstroParticule et Cosmologie (APC).

Paris 2010 continues a tradition that began in 1994, with the first SDSS collaboration meeting at Yerkes Observatory. Early collaboration meetings were filled with discussions of hardware, data pipelines, target selection, and survey strategy. Over the years, as the SDSS steadily accumulated the largest data sets in the history of astronomy, the proceedings shifted more and more towards scientific discoveries, about the large scale structure of the universe, the evolution of galaxies and quasars, the history of the Milky Way, the physics of stars, and the genealogy of asteroid families (see the highlights summaryat sdss.org). The sequence of SDSS-I and SDSS-II collaboration meetings culminated in 2008 with an international symposium that celebrated the scientific achievements and influence of the SDSS.

SDSS-III involves four new surveys, two new instruments, major upgrades to the original SDSS spectrographs and the fiber system that supports them, and many new participating institutions and scientists. The first SDSS-III collaboration meeting (Princeton, 2009) was in many ways a return to the early days, focused again on hardware, software, survey strategy, and organization of science teams.

One year along, Paris 2010 shows a project in transition, or, more precisely, four projects at four different transitions. Talks about nearly complete analyses of the chemistry and kinematics of the Galactic disks in SEGUE-2 and the aridity of the brown dwarf desert in MARVELS alternated with talks describing first measurements from the BOSS galaxy and Lyman-alpha forest surveys and the rapid progress of the APOGEE infrared spectrograph toward its commissioning in early 2011. After a day and a half of plenary sessions, the meeting split into another day and half of survey-specific parallel sessions, where team members dug into details of the science analyses, reviews of target selection efficiency, theoretical predictions and mock catalogs, and the nitty-gritty of signal-to-noise thresholds, sky coverage, and plate scheduling algorithms.

While the days started early and ran late, everyone also took the opportunity to enjoy the delights of Paris, guided expertly by LOC Chair Eric Aubourg. Highlights included the conference dinner cruise along the Seine and “wine lover’s lunches” at a small restaurant near the APC. It was asserted more than once that attending a wine lover’s lunch would improve one’s afternoon talk. This attractive hypothesis was not rigorously tested, though anecdotal evidence did not prove it obviously false.

Twenty years after the SDSS was conceived, it remains an exciting project at the cutting edge of observational astronomy, and it continues to demand the efforts, talents, and insights of a large collaboration. The collaboration meetings are intense, and they are fun.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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