6 min read

UniverseTBD: Big Bang done right

UniverseTBD: Big Bang done right


If you like our story below and would like it to continue, we're fundraising to become a non-profit to support our superstars properly. You can get in touch at ioana.ciuca034@gmail.com or @errai34 on X/Twitter.

You can also find us at UniverseTBD and on X at @universe_tbd.

It’s late February 2023, and a sunny day in Santa Barbara. Josh P and the organising team of the Data-driven Methods for Galaxy Evolution workshop at KITP ask us to propose some projects we’d like to work on. It's a tough one, as all I want to do is play with GPT-3.5. In a pure Eureka moment, I propose project #9 to build a chatbot for astro literature. Nobody joins apart from Yuan-Sen. We have been ride-or-fly for four years, and we both like impossible projects.

He’s got my back, even with this strange idea. Maybe it’s too far out. Fast forward a few weeks, and I keep grinding on project #12, a tricky graph neural network project that we’ve been discussing. No luck, as my heart is with the chatbot, and it won’t give me peace. I first call it Origins, then nickname it Dr Chattie. It’s catchy. Week 3 arrives, and we have to show what we’ve been working on at the end of the week. Also, it's time to move into my third Airbnb — the glamorous life of an ECR.

The 14th of March happens. There’s a word in town that just a few hundred km away, Sam Altman and the OpenAI team have unveiled a new model, GPT-4. I am hooked—no sleep, no healthy food, just reading and thinking about this new large language model. I got no access, so I ask my techie friends for some luck. One says yes. It’s Wednesday, and I finally decide to build Dr Chattie. How hard can it be? It helps that my latest Airbnb comes with a support furry friend that purrs and a massive computer screen. Two days left, and I am not sure anyone will like Chattie, but by this point, I’m doing it for fun.

Finally, I get to show a small demo. Josh P seems impressed, and I am in a state of disbelief that someone I look up to so much likes it. We exchange ideas and think about improving it; this is great. Kartheik and I finally get to chat more. He also likes Chattie. Yuan-Sen arrives, and the four of us start thinkering and debating. Is there any future for the chatbot? Josh P shows Dr Chattie in his concluding talk and says it’s been developed over the last three weeks. My inner hacker, who willed it into existence in a day over three coffees, smirks: “We still got it.”. Confidence is a practice, and action helps.

Yuan-Sen has a(nother) brilliant idea, saying, “Jo, how about we write a research note about Dr Chattie?”. We ponder. Stars have been the love of my life since I was six, and I saw the 1999 solar eclipse reflected in a bucket of water in a far, beautiful land called Romania. Getting to share Astronomy with the world around us seems right. We draw the paper on this massive blackboard at KITP. Hagoromo dreaming.

The KITP workshop finishes, and I am off to San Francisco. Big push to see the OpenAI office. Gotta honour the people who made us dream again. I have been daydreaming about the residency there, so I want to see first-hand what’s up. I’d reside in a heartbeat. Between roaming the city and eating fantastic tacos, I keep chipping at the research note with Yuan-Sen on Slack dial. One of the days, there’s rain outside, pouring. I decide to spend more time with GPT-4 and we finish most of the analysis. The note is still TBD.

I fly to New York to see my dear mates Nico and Danny and work at CCA for the week. They’re both secretly annoyed, as I can’t stop jamming with GPT-4. My bday comes up, and I have my first New York cigar in this smokey, low-key speakeasy, but I am still thinking about Dr Chattie. What a way to prompt your 30th.

Just as I am about to leave New York, Kartheik and I meet for a quick catch-up on Level 11 of the Flatiron Institute overlooking Manhattan. Free, tasty food, but the coffee could be better; this is not my typical Ona flat white. Thankfully, we soon enjoy an unexpected dessert.

Kartheik has the brilliant insight for us to start a group and bring Astro folk & LLM enthusiasts together to work on things that help our community. I greatly respect Kartheik - he always puts the humans first. So we brainstorm on the name, and he comes up with UniverseT(o)B(e)D(ecided). TBD is just a placeholder, but it soon becomes its own thing. Why change something that inspires change? We vibe, and UTBD is born as an idea on the 6th of April 2023. Day Zero.

Just as I fly out to Australia, I manage to finish the paper. It's time to put the headphones on, play “Girl Afraid” by The Smiths, secure the seatbelt, and we are off.

Then, on the 12th of April 2023, I post one of my better tweets “current status: Auto-GPT for astronomy research”, which draws the attention of a few incredible humans: Kevin, Sandor and Ben. The longer this story gets, the more I realise how deeply entwined we are with Elon. Kevin, Sandor, Ben and I slid into each other’s DM and have a chat about agents. I really like chatting with Kevin, he is the real deal. Sandor likes the idea of having a group. He is the better of the two Romanians in the conversation, and Romanian Science Festival is his brainchild. Honored really.

Kevin proposes we make a Slack, so we no longer slack on UTBD and make it a reality. We now have a place for the early UTBDers to thrive. We come to life on the 13th of April 2023. Amor fati, if you think about it.

Galactic ChitChat is out on the 13th, and I get a glimpse of being a social media influencer. Likes, tweets, retweets. We aren’t ready for this. Through all of it, and thanks to Josh P, Alyssa sees our paper on X/Twitter and wants to know more. Is this real life?

Thanks to Alyssa, we get support from Microsoft and how I wish OpenAI credits were real juice. We also welcome the wonderful collaboration with NASA ADS and welcome Alberto and Alyssa into UniverseTBD. Forever grateful for their trust in us. Guess we're legit now.

Back on the Funky Spaceship, the Team keeps growing with Maya, Zechang, Sharaf, Pranav, Charlie, Jack, Tomasz, Sergio, Vicente, Huiling, Erwin, Jia-Shu and our incredible technical mentors Roberta, Thang, Tong and Jill. Maya is absolutely smashing operations; she’s building our infrastructure at a speed I’ve never seen before. Zechang and Huiling, with some help from Jesse and David B, bring our website to life, and I hear we’re the funkiest website in town. We ride bold.

Yuan-Sen brings in one of our superstars Josh N, and the three of us jam with a llama. Then the full team joins the effort, and we release our first model, the AstroLLaMA. If it speaks like an astronomer and makes mistakes like an astronomer, then it can chill with an astronomer. Prof Yann LeCun tweets about it, and Le Tweet becomes our shiny pride. We’re now fine-tuning Le Tweet-2, among other things. Here’s looking at you, Rui and Ernest, our latest AstroLLaMA Chief Officers. 

The voices around us keep whispering that only a few can shine. They get louder as we grow, and new superstars join Wassim, Mike, Michele, Nolan, David H, and Tirthankar. We resist. The team has each other’s back, so we don’t deviate from the course. We are stronger than ever, and with renewed conviction that our team is all about expanding space so all of us can shine. We are not in the business of shrinking our universe when it’s us who decide it.

More posts TBD where we get to showcase the brilliant work done by our superstars. Word on the grapevine is that Inflation's next.

Huge thanks to our founding team, Kartheik, Yuan-Sen, Sandor and Kevin, our Admins + Zechang, and our brilliant mentors and advisors, Alyssa, Alberto and Josh P.  And a special thanks to Kevin for being there for me - this was pretty nerve-wracking at times.

Finally, thank you, Team. Let’s smash it in 2024.