Joshua "Josh" Hamilton
Citizen Scientist / Director of Adult Faith Formation
St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and St. John Church and Student Center
What motivated you to volunteer as a NASA citizen scientist? How did you learn about NASA citizen science?
I learned about NASA citizen science by doing it. I got onto Zooniverse – I don’t remember how – and I started working on the Disk Detective project, which is my main project still. Once you hit 300 classifications, they invite you to join the super users group. It was like being invited to be a moderator in a forum, but you were also invited to join video conference meetings every week with the science team. Obviously, a lot of it was way over my head at first! But it was their way of welcoming those of us who were doing lots of classifications.
Once you’ve been brought in those meetings, there’s an opportunity for training to become part of the citizen science team. That took me quite a while – I’m still learning. I worked with people on the team for about six months to train and practice how to classify images – a lot of that was working with Milton Bosch, who’s another citizen scientist.
"It was the skills I learned in Disk Detective – looking at data, reading light curves, finding discrepancies, recognizing an eclipsing binary – that made it possible for me to do this work."
In our project, we classify infrared images of stellar disks. You have a star, it has a disk, and you look at that same disk at different temperature levels, which tells you a lot about the star and its disk. Based on that, we’re able to then infer how stars go from a clump of gas to star to planetesimal system, planets, and then eventually to their death. We’re looking for stars in every step of that process in each type of star because they are all very different.
The big factor for my continuing involvement was being in the video conference meetings, seeing all the scientists – Dr. Marc Kuchner and Dr. Steven Silverberg – and all the different citizen scientists. You feel part of the team, and it makes you want to do more than just the online classifications. But it all starts with looking at this raw data. The citizen science people on Zooniverse are doing the raw classifications. If they start with a million images, they can narrow it down to 10,000. Then the citizen science team can refine those down to 1,000 or even 100. And then the scientists can consult with the citizen scientists who, as we learned, can start to move beyond data understanding and actually learn how to make deductions on our own, which is cool.
It sucks you in like a black hole – the more involved you get, the more you feel you are trusted, and the deeper you go. It’s crazy when Dr. Kuchner asks your opinion on a star or a system, and you know just enough that you might have a theory that works.
What do you do when you’re not doing science with NASA? Tell us about your job and your hobbies.
I work as the Director of Adult Faith Formation for a large Catholic parish here in Michigan. I’m an employee, not an ordained priest. I do lots of admin work – strategic planning, visioning, and co-leading staff meetings and retreats. Project management is a real interest of mine, as are communication and videography, marketing, social media. I also meet with lots of people for direction and guidance – preparing couples who are engaged to be married, helping people with other major life transitions, leading bible studies, giving talks. I gave one recently called “Science Versus Faith: There’s No Competition,” where my message was that they aren’t mutually exclusive and actually function best when paired with the other.
I love understanding, in my particular part of citizen science, how these massive clouds of dust come together seemingly randomly to form a star, and that star has a swirling disk, and over time, these particles come together and form planets and switch places with each other and get smashed into.
Earth formed, then it was hit again and reset, and somehow we ended up being here – this is our story. To me, understanding all that enhances my work and my faith. Being involved intimately in science, I’m hoping, will help give people in Christianity a bridge.
If you look at the time since the 2016 election, anti-science and the situation with COVID and climate change and a general distrust of science, particularly by people of faith – it frustrates me as a Catholic. The Church would say we follow science unless it becomes philosophy, that is, unless it steps out of bounds. A scientist can say, “I cannot detect God with my (insert instrument name)”; that is a scientific statement that could be researched, peer reviewed, etc. A scientist cannot say that there is no God, of course, because that’s philosophy; there’s no way to prove, disprove or peer review that statement. You may not be able to detect Him, but that would make sense, since the term “God” is used to describe a being outside space and time, that is to say, undetectable and unverifiable by means of science. Popes for generations have said we leave science to the scientists, and we do the theology and philosophy. I think that’s a beautiful way of doing it.
Remember, the scientific method was developed by monks in monasteries. This science-versus-faith thing has only come in the last few hundred years. I’m not on a crusade to fix this, but I hope to be a bridge.
I know there are scientists who do not share my faith, and people of faith who don’t feel as I do about science. But at their core, I see faith and science as very compatible. Loving and pursuing God leads me to love science because that’s part of how I see and understand who He is and how He created us.
Most of my time outside of work is spent with my beautiful family. I have an amazing wife and two kiddos. We like to explore. We live in the city, so we walk to parks, local places, river trails, and do some gardening. I also still work on my dad’s dairy farm in Fowler, Michigan, once a week. He manages about 4,000 dairy cows. I like the release of working outside and doing what I grew up doing.
What have you learned about the process of science from your time on NASA citizen science projects?
The first thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK – not only OK to be incorrect, but important to be incorrect. Peer review has taught me that it’s just as valuable to fail as it is to succeed. And that flip-flopping is not what it seems; it is science working exactly the way it has to work, the way everything else works, acting in the moment on what you have while also continuing to grow and learn.
I worked on a paper with the Disk Detective team where we basically disproved a previous paper – we weren’t looking down on those authors, but we were saying that we now have these new robotic telescopes and new data, and we need to rethink the ideas we thought were right before we had these tools. We simply know more now. Someone will do the same to our paper in 20 years. And that’s OK, because we didn’t have the data they’ll have.
"Peer review has taught me that it’s just as valuable to fail as it is to succeed."
To take that into a modern context, consider the recent announcement that people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks. A lot of my friends, on both sides of the aisle, freaked out about this. Some said, “This is so stupid, it’s about time.” Others said, “We should still be wearing masks, why did they change” – as if the scientists had given in to political pressure! I looked at the research that the decision was based on, and it seems that if you’re vaccinated, there’s a significantly reduced chance that you’ll pass COVID to anyone, and you probably won’t get sick, at least not in a detectible way. But had I not had the experience of peer review, it would appear like more of a flip-flop than I know it to be. Being in the citizen science world, I know how this works, that these changes are important. Scientists acted on what they knew, all the while continuing the research, knowing full well that they’d probably find that some of their ideas were wrong, and that’s OK; that’s how the process is supposed to work. That’s really different from the naïve sense that a lot of people have that we should just figure it out and the first time it should be perfect – as if they’ve ever done that in their life anyway with anything.
"It’s given me careful hope for humanity."
There will never be a point when we know it all or when science is perfect. And scientists need to hear that as much as the people who don’t believe in science. Scientists need to hear that they are never going to be 100% perfect. You have to be humble – confident enough to say, “I’ve looked at the data, I’ve formulated the best hypothesis, but it’s a hypothesis, and I know that one simple particle from one of these accelerators could throw everything from the last 300 years on its tail,” and that would be OK, because we didn’t know.
Another thing I learned is how much collaboration is a part of the process of science. Working on the citizen science team, seeing people from around the globe, from all these continents, including scientists from different universities, has really shown me that science doesn’t need to be a competition; it can be a team sport. It’s given me careful hope for humanity. After all, we all see the same stars, same story, same science. The more we focus on things that we as a human race want to pursue, the more we might rise above the petty disagreements with our neighbors. It makes me realize we’re a lot more in the same boat than we think.
Which peer-reviewed research publications have you contributed to through your citizen science work? What was your role in the research and writing process?
I’ve contributed to two publications. The first was published in 2018 in The Astrophysical Journal and was called “Follow-up Imaging of Disk Candidates from the Disk Detective Citizen Science Project: New Discoveries and False Positives in WISE Circumstellar Disk Surveys.”
The second was published in 2020, also in The Astrophysical Journal, and was called “Peter Pan Disks: Long-lived Accretion Disks Around Young M Stars.”
My role was different in each project. In one paper, I used my graphic design skills. For the analysis, we needed to precisely place a circle in the exact same spot on a series of images – it wasn’t a coding problem, it wasn’t fancy, but it was essential to help us identify what was going on. Had I not joined in, they might not have found that need satisfied, and I wouldn’t have known that my skill had a place. I do the things that I’m able to do and good at, and leave the rest to others. In another paper, I was partially responsible for finding and classifying the relevant stars referenced in the paper and fleshing out the data on them prior to the paper being written.
I’m also working on my own paper on stellar periodicity in Young Stellar Objects (YSOs) I’ve discovered while working through the American Association of Variable Star Observers, or AAVSO, database. This hopefully will be published in the summer of 2021!
What have you discovered or learned as a NASA citizen scientist?
As a side thing, I’ve done some work through AAVSO. I’ve discovered and named two variable stars, HJRA V1 and HJRA V2 (you don’t get to give them creative names) in the data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. I’ve looked through a few thousand of the 10 million TESS images and was able to discover a few stars that were not previously known to be variable.
It was the skills I learned in Disk Detective – looking at data, reading light curves, finding discrepancies, recognizing an eclipsing binary – that made it possible for me to do this work. And I know how to use VizieR (a searchable library of listed star catalogs) and different databases to look up stars to see if they’ve been previously discovered and labeled with their structural type. I have learned enough to be able to evaluate that prior work to determine if it’s a good paper or an old paper – these are things I would never have been able to do before Disk Detective.
With the TESS data, there are 10 million images ... You, at home on your PC, can download data that have never been touched by a scientist, or images that no one before you has ever looked at. It’s an amazing opportunity.
The paper I’m writing will be titled “185 YSOs.” AAVSO has a list of all the objects that they consider YSOs, which are stars in their early stages of life, just condensed from dust. I went through all the data on each of these stars, looking for telltale YSO markers, and I found a few that had a regular variation, nice sine curves, different kinds of curves. This stood out because generally, YSOs are more irregular. They, like young children, are kind of crazy and all over the place. I dug into the research about these stars and paired that with light curves from the AAVSO data and created a more concrete listing of the star type. That’s what I’m working on.
What advice would you give to others who might want to volunteer with NASA citizen science?
I like the Nike thing – just do it! Find something in your area of interest, if possible, and don’t be afraid to ask. People always wonder how I find all the random hobbies I find. Most people find things and think, “Oh, that’s cool,” and I find things and I think, “Oh, that’s cool, let me email the point of contact and find out more.” Reach out, contact people, tell them your skills – you might find that you can contribute in unexpected ways.
I think citizen science is becoming more important now. In all of history, the problem in astronomy was that there weren’t enough scientists or money – you needed people able to sit in front of a super expensive telescope and manually record data. Now we have the opposite problem – we have plenty of money, plenty of data, but we’re still short on scientists – not for recording data but for processing data.
Through the years of Disk Detective, we’ve gotten better at using computers to presort images, but I don’t see a time when you’ll be able to do that only using computers. We still require the human eye. If you are interested in citizen science, you should know yourself as valuable. With the TESS data, there are 10 million images. What could be in those images and light curves? Who knows? You, at home on your PC, can download data that have never been touched by a scientist, or images that no one before you has ever looked at. It’s an amazing opportunity.
Who have you met during your NASA citizen science work who inspires you?
Dr. Marc Kuchner, certainly, because if you like science, he’s someone to look up to; he’s accomplished so much, and he’s so approachable. If I had what he had in terms of knowledge, I don’t know that I’d jump on a video conference call every week with a bunch of people from all around the world, many of whom know little or nothing about astronomy compared to what he knows. I look up to Marc a lot, not only because he knows a lot, but because he’s willing to spread that to other people when he could turn himself off and hide in the world of academia. He draws a lot of energy from it, I think, which I hope inspires other scientists.
And Dr. Steven Silverberg, the postdoc who is now leading Disk Detective but who started out as a doctoral student on the project. We got to ride along with him on his doctorate work and see how hard he had to work for his degree and celebrate that with him. That inspires me as a fellow grad student. Scientific research is a different animal than other research. You’re not in the straight-and-narrow facts realm.
How much time do you spend on NASA citizen science projects?
Back in the years when I was a 911 dispatcher, probably 5-10 hours a week, mostly because I worked a lot of shifts and on quiet nights I’d have downtime. Over the last five years, I’ve done about 85,000 classifications. Now, not so much, more like 1-3 hours a week. It molds to the time you’re able to give. There was a time after my first child, starting a new job, I was gone from the video calls for almost a year (but still classifying on my own). When I came back, I was welcomed back warmly. I worked with the trainer to get back up to speed. The attitude is that you give what you can when you can, and I really appreciated that flexibility.