Harvard scientist shows big datasets can be beautiful, too

Worlds: The Kepler Planet Candidates from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

The buzzword in science these days is “big data,’’ whether it’s several encyclopedias’ worth of genetic information or long lists of planets orbiting faraway stars — one of which might support life.

It can be hard to wrap your mind around all those strings of numbers, letters, and measurements: What does all that data look like? What does it mean? How is it useful?

Alex Parker, a postdoctoral research fellow from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, likes to spend his spare time coming up with ways to turn big data into visualizations that highlight both the beauty and the vastness. In his latest effort, he takes data from NASA’s Kepler mission, which is focused on finding Earth-sized planets circling other stars and squeezes it into a mesmerizing three-minute animation.


Parker envisioned what it would look like if you took all the 2,299 planet candidates Kepler has found so far (as of February) circling 1,770 stars, and put them in orbit around one star. The planets, ranging from one-third the size of the Earth to 84 times as large, swirl around the star in this video. They’re colored according to how hot (red) or cold (blue) they are thought to be.

“It was what fell out of a year of tinkering,’’ Park said. “The Kepler dataset is a fantastic, big dataset, and it was really calling out for some nice visualizations.’’

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