An A-level British student named Miles Soloman proved the value of having human eyeballs on scientific data when he discovered that radiation sensors on the International Space Station was producing false data. When he informed NASA scientists of his discovery, they showed their appreciation by inviting him to help analyze the issue.
While making the discovery, Mr. Soloman used spreadsheets provided as part of the TimPix project. TimPix is part of the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) and enables students to assist with research by looking for anomalies and patterns that could indicate a new discovery. During a feature on BBC’s World at One program, Soloman described working with the data in the spreadsheets as being “a lot more interesting than it sounds.”
The radiation detectors that were producing the erroneous data had begun operating while the UK’s Tim Peake was on board the International Space Station in 2016. Soloman scrolled right to the bottom of the spreadsheet containing the data they had produced and asked his physics teacher, “Why does it say there’s -1 energy in there?” Negative radiation energy is theoretically impossible, so it had to be an issue with the data that was being returned by the sensors. Soloman and his teacher promptly emailed NASA with their findings.
NASA experts were already aware that the sensors could produce this error, but had thought that it didn’t happen more than a couple times per year. Soloman had noticed that it was happening multiple times a day and throwing off the data in the process. Professor Larry Pinksy of the University of Houston said of the matter: “My colleagues at NASA thought they had cleaned that up.”
It also showed the value of programs like IRIS, in which students and “citizen scientists” can help analyze data, which professionals don’t always have time to do properly. With the sheer amount of data being produced by experiments being conducted on the International Space Station, it’s easy for experts to miss errors like the one spotted by Soloman. Despite the fact that his classmates think he’s a nerd for spotting the error first, he says, “I’m not trying to prove NASA wrong.” He’d rather work with them.