Mr Jek using a telescope to look at the transit of Venus earlier this year in his backyard in San Francisco. Together with an oncologist from Arizona, he helped to discover PH1, which is about 5,000 light-years from Earth and is the first-known planet to be orbitally linked to four suns. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JEK KIAN JIN
By Leonard Lim
A CALIFORNIA-BASED Singaporean is one of two amateur astronomers credited with finding an extraordinary new planet that has four suns.
Former President's Scholar Jek Kian Jin, 53, along with an American, helped professionals from United States space agency Nasa and Yale University discover PH1, the first-known planet to be orbitally linked to four suns.
The other amateur is Mr Robert Gagliano, an oncologist based in Arizona.
Soon after PH1's discovery made the headlines at an annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Nevada a week ago, it was nicknamed Tatooine after the two-sunned planet of Star Wars fame.
The research that led to the ground-breaking find began in December 2010 when Mr Jek, an IT consultant who lives in San Francisco, joined the Planet Hunters group.
The project, which the planet is named after, enlists volunteers to analyse publicly available data from the US$600million (S$732million) Kepler telescope.
Speaking to The Straits Times over the phone yesterday, Mr Jek recalled how he spent hours studying graphs to hunt for telltale dips in brightness that indicate a planet moving past its sun.
It was a marriage of his passions for computers and the stars, and a way to escape waiting outdoors for a clear sky in a city where the temperature can dip into the single digits.
"More and more astronomy is done using computer software," said Mr Jek, who was involved in starting Singapore's first Internet server, which held government information services, in the early 1990s. "Previously, I always had to rely on telescopes and clear skies, but now I can make sense of computer data."
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the new find is a circumbinary planet, or a planet that orbits two stars.
Only six other circumbinary planets are known to exist, and PH1 is orbited by two more distant stars, making it the first known quadruple sun system.
The planet is about 5,000 light-years from Earth, has a radius six times that of Earth and is slightly bigger than Neptune.
The discovery, Mr Jek said, shows the power of bringing together professionalastronomers, amateurs and computers.
"No matter how well the software is designed, it can still miss something," said the Cambridge University molecular biology graduate.
After he and Mr Gagliano, 68, detected the probable planet, their data was passed to astronomers at Nasa and Yale, who confirmed the find using a large telescope in Hawaii.
The whole process took more than a year as the planet's existence had to be verified three separate times for absolute certainty. Each time, the wait came to 138 days, the time it took for PH1 to complete a single orbit.
Mr Jek, whose father is Old Guard minister Jek Yeun Thong, picked up astronomy as a child after an uncle taught him how to probe the night sky. He loved the stars so much that he would have chosen astronomy as his profession, but, half in jest, he said "it was not something any respectable Singapore citizen would do".
"Everyone ends up as a doctor or engineer," he quipped.
He moved to the US in 1997 with his wife and three sons after completing his scholarship bond and working in the IT and multimedia fields. His eldest son, 18, is serving national service now.
Ranting on Facebook on Sunday evening, sacked by Monday lunchtime. Such was the lot of Ms Amy Cheong, formerly assistant director of the National Trades Union Congress’s (NTUC) membership department.
On Oct 7, she made a Facebook post complaining about Malay weddings and making derogatory remarks about Malays.
It went viral that night, attracting fire on Twitter and Facebook – as well as the attention of NTUC, who said just past midnight that it was investigating the matter. By lunchtime on Monday, it had fired Ms Cheong.
Some netizens praised NTUC’s swift reaction. But others wondered if it - together with the fierce campaign against her mounted by Netizens – was an overreaction.
One view often offered in mitigation in such incidents is that the perpetrator thought it was private or was simply young and foolish.
This type of reasoning is starting to sound increasingly hollow with every new incident.
First, most people - even children - have learnt by now that nothing on the Internet is really private unless locked down (and even then, a ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ might well expose you).
Second, it rests on the false assumption that an employee’s personal social media use is not an employer’s business.
This may be the first time a worker in Singapore has lost their job over a Facebook post – publicly, at least. But such sackings are old news on the Internet, with numerous articles and blogs on the phenomenon.
Virgin Atlantic flight attendants have been sacked for insulting passengers; radio hosts for off-the-air ranting. Racist remarks got a British pub landlord fired last year(2011) – as they did a bartender in Chicago this April.
And there are inarguable ways in which a Facebook post could be a sackable offence – if it reveals confidential information, for instance. The mere fact that the post was on Facebook does not make it off-limits for censure.
But even if Ms Cheong had reason to know that what she was doing was wrong and likely not private, was NTUC right in firing her for one racist Facebook remark?
Surely – goes the argument – NTUC could have counselled Ms Cheong instead (which it did, before firing her). Ms Cheong could have been allowed to continue in her post, hopefully wiser and more tolerant for the experience.
It is hard to say whether NTUC ‘overreacted’ in terms of being fair to Ms Cheong, or giving her a second chance. But it is easy to see why it did what it did – and in purely instrumental terms, it was no overreaction.
First, NTUC’s “zero tolerance” stance for racism is perfectly understandable in Singapore, given the sensitivity with which racial issues are treated here. Anything less than sacking Ms Cheong might be interpreted as compromising the central national value of racial harmony.
Secondly, as a labour movement built on “inclusiveness” and meant to represent all workers, NTUC has an especial responsibility to take a firm stance against bigotry. An organisation which does not condemn prejudice against minorities may alienate them with its inaction.
Thirdly, under the glare of social media’s spotlights, employers might feel an understandable pressure to come down harshly on any misdemeanour – and to be seen to be doing so. If NTUC had not fired Ms Cheong, it would likely have received flak for that.
The consequences of NTUC’s move are a separate matter. In previous episodes of online racism, some have criticised heavy-handed moves such as police reports, arguing that it is more fruitful to let racism be defeated in open debate. Ms Cheong’s sacking might also give ammunition to the anti-political correctness brigade, who think that any reaction to racism is overreaction and that minorities are just ‘being too sensitive’.
Still, if nothing else, Ms Cheong’s fate should make keyboard racists think twice before spewing their bile online. Yes, this would let such quiet bigots go scot-free, sparing them from public scrutiny – but it also spares the targets of racism from having to hear the same, old, ugly comments. And that must surely be worth something.
THE young of today will be the old of tomorrow. The problem of facilities for the elderly will become more and more pressing, so we have to plan ahead ("Singapore 'not ready' for ageing society"; last Thursday).
Now, Singaporeans live longer, and are healthier as well. Many have only one child or no children at all, and many are single or widowed.
There are a large number of people who are past their retirement age, but still healthy and active. These people want to enjoy an independent lifestyle, but need a conducive environment to do so.
This is where retirement condominiums geared towards retirees come in. These can have social and medical amenities nearby to enable seniors to live an active life on their own.
But unlike large countries, where retirement condos are in abundance, in Singapore, because of the high price of land, such condos are non-existent, and likely to be unaffordable.
The Government can fill this gap by allocating land leased cheaplto private developers solely for this purpose.