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Shooting for the Stars; Becoming One Herself: Professor Alyssa Goodman's Constellation of Projects

By: Felicia Ho, PRISE, Harvard College '23


What does Jacques Cousteau, a famous French marine scientist, have to do with the Tesla Model 3? With a click of the mouse, this question was soon answered as the name “Calypso” flickered onto the screen above Cousteau’s boat-transformed-into-research vessel bobbing in the sea and a blue Tesla glimmering in the sun.

Although at first glance Professor Alyssa Goodman harkening back to her childhood days of watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” through naming her Tesla after Cousteau’s boat seems to paint a linear journey from point A to B, she stressed that, in reality, her career path has taken many twists and turns in research focus and projects. As a child, she wanted to become an oceanographer like Cousteau; as an undergraduate studying physics at MIT in 1983, she made a life-changing decision to call up NASA from the Yellow Pages to seek an exciting new opportunity after growing weary of pursuing engineering for the past few summers.


Here, she admits with a chuckle, is where she claims that “I did go into astronomy for the money,” as she chose an opportunity to make $2000 as an astrophysicist over paying that same amount to go on an underwater archeological dig. This was the first step of her journey into the world of astronomy, one that has led her to become the Robert Wheeler Wilson Professor of Applied Astronomy at Harvard today.


Likening her experience in the summer program at Columbia in 1983 to the PRISE program, Professor Goodman described a transformative experience that greatly helped shape her career interests and goals towards understanding climate change and the universe at large. She largely credits this shift in interests to renowned climate scientist James Hansen, whose Earth Science lectures at the program were as eye-opening and influential as the testimony he would later give before Congress in 1988 on the pressing dangers of global warming.


Soon, Professor Goodman started studying star formation and diving deeper into astrophysics, eventually helping develop worldwidetelescope.org to help users online explore the galaxy in an immersive, data and resource-plentiful environment that features images captured from high resolution telescopes. Following the successful release of this project, she then became especially interested in how data visualization could be applied to other fields and how it had substantial potential for creating better education platforms in teaching and outreach.


Opportunity soon arrived in the form of a meeting with a public television news station in 2008: Professor Goodman pitched the idea to the company to release a series that would help educate the public on the importance of computer simulations, modeling, data analysis, and ultimately data visualization. Many years afterwards, around one third of the Zoom participants in the talk polled by Professor Goodman admitted that they have either not heard of computer simulations or used them- clearly highlighting a gap in the education system, she notes.


Although the Financial Crisis of 2008 unfortunately shut down this pitch, Professor Goodman later returned to her passions for designing better data visualization programs with the launch of “The Prediction Project,” hosted on predictionx.org. Even the teaser for this website was extensively thought through and well-made: takeasweater.com, designed by Professor Goodman and her collaborators to be the phone teaser for the project, is unlike many mainstream weather forecasts as it not only predicts the weather but also shows the degree of uncertainty for any specified forecast. Predictionx.org expands upon the ideas touched upon in the teaser - mainly, the theory that studying historical records of past events could help guide what future events would look like, if under similar conditions, and how this could be modeled - with several modules to explore the history of prediction, the rise of certain theories like Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitational pull, and even modern simulations complete with interviews in the field.


Indeed, from the website, we can clearly see that “Newton really did stand on the shoulders of giants,” as Professor Goodman says as she scrolls through the extensive interactive timeline, “even if he did not actually say this quote.”


Expanding upon her greater goals of designing better data visualization algorithms and programs, Professor Goodman has now founded a software company, gluesolutions, inc., whose services have helped visualize and understand where certain official models of the coronavirus pandemic released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) may be lacking.


“It infuriates me that the public does not understand uncertainty as a result of a fundamental failing in our education system. People do not understand the difference between risk and uncertainty,”

Professor Goodman notes as she goes through examples of COVID-19 models and stresses the unfortunate reality of how much and how often the uncertainty bands have had to be modified to better align with reality.


And to top all this extensive work in data visualization off, she and several collaborators recently made a huge discovery in the field of astronomy and astrophysics: the Radcliffe Wave, the largest gaseous structure in the Milky Way that seems to also oddly oscillate like a sine wave. 3D data visualizations like GLUE and the Worldwide Telescope, the Gaia telescope, and many complex statistical techniques helped make this discovery possible. Alan Tu, one of the PRISE fellows this year, is working in Professor Goodman’s lab to help better understand how stars are moving in conjunction with this peculiar and fascinating gaseous wave, how this wave is formed, and what it will transform into in the future.


Professor Goodman introduced us to one more project, the “Paper of the Future” concept, in the last few minutes of the talk. The idea is to make scientific papers more approachable and interactive in figures and code availability, effectively turning the traditional “paper” into a dynamic platform that integrates many aspects of Professor Goodman’s interests - data analysis, teaching and outreach, and predicting the future.


It was a pleasure to have a “PRISE conversation,” as Professor Goodman called the talk this past Tuesday afternoon. We look forward to sharing some coffee, tea, pie, shortbread cookies, dinner, or even Mateo’s salsa (which Greg offered to ship to Professor Goodman and in a definitely #notsponsored fashion added that he has “eight jars” and “I can’t stop drinking it”) sometime with Professor Goodman whenever we return to campus.


Until then, we’ll be busy exploring all of Professor Goodman’s projects glittering in constellations on the Internet, as plentiful and as rich as stars shining in a clear night sky.

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