Sunspots can tell us when to expect a solar flare. Join in the fun by logging on to http://www.sunspotter.org

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Calling all sunspotters – your help is needed to decide which sunspots will flare, maybe causing a solar storm. In June 2014, we had two X-class solar flares back-2-back – bang, bang. The more complex  a sunspot region is, the more likely it is to flare. Can you tell the difference between a text book on Quantum Mechanics and an Italian Cookbook? If so, your help is needed by solar scientists for the next phase of the Citizen Science project  called ‘Sunspotters’. This project was launched in Ireland in February 2013, and has been such a great success that it has just gone global. Join in the fun and see how good you are at spotting which active regions (sunspot groups) are ready to explode.

See Press Release on 13th June 2014: http://www.tcd.ie/news_events/articles/hot-or-not-trinity-astrophysicists-ask-public-to-rank-sunspots/4745#.U5stDGcU9LO

Find out more about the sunspotter project here: http://blog.sunspotter.org/2014/06/13/and-were-back-sunspotter-round-2/

The overall goal of Sunspotter is to connect patterns of sunspot evolution, complexity, and eruptions. In addition to producing the beautiful Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, solar eruptions can harm astronauts, disrupt GPS and damage satellites. If the Apollo 16 and 17 astronauts had left for the Moon just a bit earlier or later, they would have been blasted by radiation from an intense solar storm.

This project is led by Paul Higgins, a surfing dude, who surfs the solar surface to spot some action!

Paul Higgins and surfboard

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Paul is based at Trinity College Dublin, but currently visiting Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in California, USA. Plenty of surfing over there! Paul says “The reason we cannot just use computers to classify all of this data is that ‘complexity’ is not easily quantifiable. Humans can easily compare two objects, like a skateboard and a lorry and decide, ‘this one is more complex’. This is beyond the capabilities of current computer software. The data we collect from Sunspotter volunteers may allow us to train a computer algorithm to measure sunspot complexity in the near future.”

This project is part of the ‘Zooniverse’, a web portal devoted to Citizen Science projects, which has over 1,000,000 volunteers contributing to new cutting-edge science every day.

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For the past five years Paul has been trying to figure out what makes sunspots erupt, hurling hot gas off the Sun, often toward the Earth. This photo was taken at the Dunne Solar Telescope, New Mexico, when he and his friend caught an X-class flare. How awesome is that!

While working on this complicated problem, he has been trying to get everyone else more interested in science. Paul tells us about his journey: ‘After five years as an undergrad in California, and four years as a postgrad at Trinity College Dublin, I finally managed to get a PhD in physics! In addition to learning theories of physics, I honed skills in writing effectively, problem solving, being proactive, and thinking critically. Knowing the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of physical theories is important, but to be a successful as a scientist you have to employ all of the above in your research.’

Even though he was happy to talk to the public, he was a little nervous about facing teenagers! He got over this when he competed in the ‘I’m A Scientist Get Me Outa Here!’ Space Zone challenge, which pitted him against four other scientists in answering space related questions from secondary school students.

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Paul then kick-started an outreach project of his own called ‘Solar Surfer’, an educational web-app designed to teach students about the Sun, planets, and space by combining text, images, game elements, and simulations. Now he finds himself directing the ‘Student2Scientist programme’ in Ireland. There are loads of really smart and creative teachers and students out there. This project allows them to teach and learn science in a more intuitive way, by designing a simulation or game based on a scientific concept using the Scratch educational programming language. Student2Scientist is making text-book science come alive on your computer screen!

Find out more about Paul here: http://www.tcd.ie/Physics/Astrophysics/higgins.php