Inside Rensselaer
* Peter Fox
Data Scientist Joins Rensselaer Tetherless World Research  Constellation

Peter Fox has joined Rensselaer as the newest chair of the Tetherless World Research Constellation. Fox brings extensive experience as both a data and solar-terrestrial scientist, joining two of the world’s top Web scientists — James Hendler and Deborah McGuinness — to complete the senior leadership of the constellation, which was created in 2006. He also will serve on the faculty of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“With the addition of Dr. Fox, we have filled another constellation and now have three top researchers who are working to use and understand the Web in ways that have never before been explored, placing Rensselaer as a world leader in the emerging field of Web Science,” said Provost Robert Palazzo. “Dr. Fox’s research is an excellent complement to existing research of the constellation and will help scientists around the world use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance scientific discovery and work together in a more global, collaborative way.”

In an era of supercomputers like the more than 100 teraflop Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) at Rensselaer, scientists can analyze amounts of data in one day that previously would have taken months, according to Fox. In his research, Fox uses computer programs and algorithms to mold the data of scientists so it can be easily shared, interpreted, and duplicated by other scientists and, importantly for him, understood by a range of non-specialists including the public.

“Scientists create highly complex data on their own, but to solve large-scale interdisciplinary problems these researchers need technologies to cross the disciplinary and information divide so that once data is discovered and analyzed, the results and conclusions can be reliably and inexpensively reproduced,” Fox said. “If scientists can quickly and rigorously reproduce the results of their colleagues, that knowledge can quickly be built upon instead of stopping at that point in its development because no one else can easily work with the foundational data that they need to begin with.”

Fox sees the Web as the main engine for this global scientific data sharing. “With the Web we can combine the computational power and information from every computer in the world,” he said. Fox also sees the Web as key to involving the public in scientific discovery: “The Web will be the tool by which we present science. It is the tool that the general public is going to use to access this information and perhaps build on the data on their own as citizen scientists.”

Fox has spent the past 17 years as chief computational scientist at the High Altitude Observatory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research with two primary pursuits. Fox is using his computational research to address one of the most the most pressing global issues — contributions to climate variability. In particular his research looks at variations in solar radiation and models how that correlates to changes in the climate. Since 2003 he has also served as a member of the Universities Space Research Association virtual institute for the Study of Solar Variability on Climate. He was also a visiting researcher at Sydney University in Australia as well as the Yale University Center for Solar and Space Research. Secondly, due to the need to integrate vast amounts of data on a range of science projects, Fox has brought semantic web and grid methodologies and technologies to a new paradigm of virtual observatories — which aim to provide access to distributed and heterogeneous data holdings, spread over the Internet and disciplines, to a wide audience, making them appear to be local and integrated. This work is now becoming part of the Tetherless World activity in semantic data frameworks facilitating semantic e-science.

Fox also sees the Web as key to involving the public in scientific discovery: “The Web will be the tool by which we present science. It is the tool that the general public is going to use to access this information and perhaps build on the data on their own as citizen scientists.”

He has published more than 70 papers on his research and is an active proponent in the effort to erase the digital divide between the northern and southern hemispheres, meeting regularly with colleagues from around the world to increase global connectivity.

Fox earned both a bachelor’s honors degree and doctorate in mathematics from Monash University.

He is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, the Earth Science Information Partnership, the European Geosciences Union, the American Astronomical Society Solar Physics Division, and the American Geophysical Union.

The Tetherless World Constellation at Rensselaer addresses Web Science, focusing on the World Wide Web and its future use. The constellation is developing multidisciplinary teams of senior and junior faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in everything from information technology and computer science to cognitive science and sociology. The goals of the constellation are to explore the research and engineering principles that underlie the Web, enhance the Web’s research beyond the desktop and laptop computer, and develop new technologies and languages that expand the capabilities of the Web.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 20, December 5, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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