Alex is a computer engineering major interested in science, learning opportunities, and software development. He is most interested in working with scientists and tailoring code to their needs to aid in research. This past summer 2012, Alex had a chance to do exactly that. Working for Gerry Harp, the Director of SETI Research at the Center for SETI Research, as part of the CAMPARE program, Alex spent his time developing and writing algorithms for analyzing data from the ATA. This is his story.
At the center of each galaxy is a massive matter-munching black hole. As the galaxy spins around, getting sucked into the singularity, it picks up speed and energy, forming an accretion disk. As the accretion disk falls into the black hole, a jet of radio-loud plasma spews out of the black hole. The direction of this jet's path in relation to the observer dictates the designation of the galaxy. If the jet is aimed right at the observer, the body is called a blazar. The plasma that comes out expands as it travels, changing the frequency of radiation it emits. Of course, all of this is just the best guess about blazars; the fact is, we know very little about these primordial bodies. They are old and some of them might not even exist anymore while we observe them. They have some periodicity, but so far we aren't sure of the specifics of how that even works.
Currently, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has hundreds of nights worth of observation on these bodies waiting for someone to come along and uncover what secrets they hold. The biggest problem was the data processing that has to be done was in bits and pieces, requiring a human to initiate each step. The key word there being "was." My internship involved taking old code written in a number of different languages that didn't interact well and rewriting them all in my mentor's favorite language: Java. Some code needed to be expanded, some needed to be modified, and some needed to be written from scratch. The code I had access to produced images in Miriad format, but to share the files we need them in FITS format. It was my first program that I wrote entirely solo as a professional, and it did what was probably the most needed missing part of the code pipeline that would take the data from raw to ready.
Before I arrived at the SETI Institute, I had never opened Java before, and I wasn't sure how easy it was going to be to learn it in the two days set aside for me to do so. However, I decided if I could learn C on my own in 2 weeks without Internet access when I was 12, I could learn Java ten years later with access to Javadocs: and I was right. But that isn't the only thing I learned while I was here. The entire environment was new to me. I was using a Linux box and Terminal and logging onto a server to do all my work remotely, all of which was completely new to me. However, I learned more than just new things about computers. I paid attention to my peers, learned about their projects, and attended all of the lectures I had time to see. At Lassen Volcanic National Park I had a fun hands-on experience taking measurements of cation levels in a pool of acid that another intern was researching bacteria that survive in water with a pH of 3.17.
This is definitely my most enjoyable and amazing summer to date.