An astronomer by any other name

Relaxing after a great show. Left to right: me, Tom Denson, Justine Rogers, Rob Brooks, Nalini Joshi.

Relaxing after a great show. Left to right: me, Tom Denson, Justine Rogers, Rob Brooks, Nalini Joshi (credit: Jeremy Belinfante).

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. In that time a lot has happened.

At the end of March this year my contract as the Deputy Gemini Scientist at the Australian Astronomical Observatory ended, and for personal reasons (not least that I wanted to stay where I am), I decided to stop being a researcher. In some ways this was not an easy decision, but it’s one that I don’t regret. The whole publish or perish side of research is one that is not really suited to maintaining my mental health and wellbeing. I’ll elaborate more on that in a future post.

I am now the Web and Information Administrator at the AAO – that’s the official title anyway – and I’m working on rebuilding the Observatory’s old (and very outdated) website using more modern systems. I’m also managing and administering databases and document management systems. We’re looking to become more of a data centre in the future, and I hope to be a part of that too. Web technologies are playing an every increasing part of my life.

I haven’t given up my public outreach activities though, not by a long shot. In fact, this year has been one of the most active years in my career so far. I’m still asked to comment on breaking astronomical stories (for example, on Voyager 1 or measuring the height on Mars). I still visit schools and speak to students about space, stars and planets (definitely worth a future post!). But this year I’ve done a few bigger things.

In May I did something that I had never thought possible: I was part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. On stage. In front of 350 people. And you know what? People laughed, possibly even at my jokes. I spoke at the Nerd Gala (organised by the wonderful Justine from Nerd Nite Sydney) on possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe. It was heaps of fun – one of the best outreach experiences I’ve had. Yet again, this will be the topic for a future post !

This experience lead to something else unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. I appeared on an episode of Veritasium, titled Do Aliens Exist? For those of you that don’t know, Veritasium is a very popular YouTube channel with over 800,000 subscribers. Derek Muller, who makes every episode, came along to the Nerd Gala, and then contacted me not long after to set up the shoot. Again, heaps of fun. There’s a lot more footage about a lot of stuff that didn’t make the video above; hopefully it will see the light one day!

Last but certainly not least, I was heavily involved in the Russian Meteor event reporting earlier in the year. It all started with an article in The Conversation on the Near Earth Object 2012 DA14 and its Earth flyby in February. Coincidentally, the Russian meteor at Chelyabinsk occurred just days after the article was published. I was asked first to comment, and then to write a follow up article. I have a greater appreciation of journalists’ deadlines and rapidly changing news stories, that’s for sure.

So I’m no longer a research scientist. I now consider myself to be an enabler of science instead: I’m providing the tools for astronomers to do cutting edge research, and inspiring school students and the broader public to become more engaged with science. I think I’m happy with that.

Posted in Astronomy, Education, General Public, Outreach, Science | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Is there a planetary system around tau Ceti?

If you heard about the (proposed) tau Ceti planetary system late last year, then chances are you would believe that there are five planets orbiting this bright star with 100% certainty (note the “starchild” video embedded in this story), and that at least one of them was habitable. The truth – as always – is a little less clear.

I’m a member of the team that published the research, but I was really involved with the observations rather than this particular analysis. The result comes from a new technique developed using Bayesian statistics, a technique that we’re still working to validate. This means that any detection could only ever be at “candidate” status.

So why would we put out a press release on a non-conclusive result? The answer has two parts: one was to keep control of the story; the other, to make sure a competing team did not steal any potential “glory”. (Sadly, in science it is often better to be first than right.)

These days many astronomical papers get uploaded to a web server called arXiv after they have been accepted for publication, but before they have actually been published. There are some science journalists who trawl through the papers uploaded to sites like these looking for interesting stories. We wanted to avoid this, and the chance of the story going in an uncomfortable direction.

We did our best to emphasise the preliminary nature of the result in the press release. The headline was: “New neighbours? Closest single star like our Sun may have habitable planet“. Note the word “may”: this tended to get lost in the reporting of the story, especially in tabloids and non-science websites.

One tricky aspect of this story is that in any team of researchers, some will find the result more compelling than others. As such, some of the quotes in the release sound more convinced of the result than others. The message became somewhat mixed, so the reporting often picked up the more conclusive sounding comments.

I admit to being one of those who find this result less compelling than others I’ve seen, and although I was not quoted in the text, I was listed as a media contact in Australia. When asked for an interview by the ABC’s PM program, I happily gave one, and included the caveats about the technique and the uncertainty. The ABC journalist Jennifer Macey, to her credit, reported them, although the headline is far too definitive.

In Sky & Telescope, an astronomer from one of the competing teams expressed his doubts about the result, commenting that the result was “only a first guess”. I think that calling it a “guess” is a little harsh, but I would say that is only a first attempt at analysing and interpreting what is a large and tremendously complicated set of observations.

The tau Ceti result is actually reminiscent of the “planet” announced orbiting alpha Centauri B earlier in the year, in that it requires independent confirmation to be fully accepted. The press release in that case also made the result sound far more conclusive than it really is. Looking at the paper, the data is very far from conclusive (and I’ve said so elsewhere). Without going into too much detail here: all stars are complex beasts; the team claims to understand them; I don’t believe they do.

In the end, this has taught me one thing: you can’t really control how your science gets reported. You can do your best, but media outlets need to make money, and to do that they need the most exciting news. “We might have found five planets orbiting a naked eye star” can never compete with “Brightest Sun-like star has habitable planet!” Perhaps we should have stayed a little more “on message” in the press release, I’m not sure.

And all this not long after I wrote about the manipulation of headlines to garner attention for scientific results…

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The Blue Gem Charity Christmas Concert – 9 Dec 2012

I’ll be narrating the first half of the Blue Gem Charity Christmas concert this year. Come along to the The Forum in Leichhardt on Sunday December 9 at 6pm!

I’ll be narrating the first half of the Blue Gem Charity Concert this year at the Forum in Leichhardt. I’ll be speaking on all things astronomy, and then the great Nadia Piave will narrate all things gastronomy! My two favourite things :)

Proceeds go to the Safe House for Trafficked Women, run by the Salvation Army. Entry is a donation to this great cause!

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The importance of the amateur scientist

Public outreach is really enjoyable, but it can be time consuming. If you’ve got a supportive workplace where these efforts are valued then great, but a lot of places don’t value outreach, and it won’t help you land a job, as I’ve discussed before.

Professional astronomers are very lucky when it comes to outreach, perhaps luckier than we realise. There are a small, but devoted and passionate band of enthusiasts out there spreading the word about the wonders of the night sky. Amateur astronomers run open nights, write astronomy blogs and in general tell people about the fantastic things out there in the Universe. I know of one society who has started running astronomy nights for students in conjunction with their local hardware store .

People get into astronomy for different reasons, some as a hobby, some as a passion. Amateur astronomy societies are filled with both. It certainly makes giving presentations to them lots of fun – and provides a challenge to get the balance between pretty pictures and the technical detail that some are definitely interested in.

We call them amateur astronomers, but these days many of them are effectively semi-professional. There are more amateur-operated 20- to 40-inch telescopes* than professionally-operated ones out there, and many of them are operated remotely.

Amateur astronomers are a vital – and possibly under-utilised – resource for public outreach and education, and they are also making significant contributions to science. There are plenty of “citizen scientists” out there now, of course, but they mostly work exclusively with professionally made observations (check out the Zooniverse, for example). I’m talking about those out there who get their hands dirty, so-to-speak.

My favourite example is Bob Evans, a retired clergyman, received an Order of Australia for his work on supernovae. As far as I know, he still holds the record for the most supernovae discovered by an individual. (As an aside he came out of retirement to preside over the wedding of my boss, a professional supernova hunter.)

Of course there are others. One of the longest running and largest amateur astronomy societies is the American Association of Variable Star Observers or AAVSO. This is a loose-knit group of people observing the night sky looking for changes: stars that change brightness periodically, explosively, or sometimes randomly. They make a huge contribution to our understanding of transient phenomena in the Universe.

After my last visit to an amateur astronomical society (Hi to the folk at Macarthur Astronomical Society in south-western Sydney!) I started wondering about other areas of science. Astronomy is the area I’m most familiar with, but we don’t need a lab, and equipment is getting cheaper, so perhaps we have an advantage. Are there other “fieldwork” sciences that have amateur scientists?

After a little bit of digging, it turns out that amateur paleontology is also pretty popular (yes, that pun was terrible, but hey, I’m a new dad). In the US, there’s a society of amateur geologists and paleontologists  called the Dry Dredgers. Their aims are “to stimulate interest in geology, to encourage the collection and identification of fossils, and to participate in field trips and exhibitions.”

They’ve been hunting fossils for 70 years, and have found some doozies. Ron Fine, a member of Dry Dredgers, discovered a “monster” fossil earlier this year in Kentucky, measuring about 2 metres long. Professionals have never seen anything like it.

There are also private companies doing fossil digs, such as the Black Hills Institute, who encourage amateurs to get involved through projects such as Unearthing T-Rex. People have always loved digging down into the dirt, and there are also huge numbers of amateur archaeologists to go with the paleontologists. My mum is one, for example. A lot of field archaeology would never be done if it wasn’t for amateur archaeologists.

And just to show that you can do amateur science with a lab, I was recently pointed in the direction of DIYbio, a group whose mission is to make “biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety.” Given the often exorbitant cost of lab equipment, they have a page dedicated to hardware developed by their community.

I’m sure that there are more out there and would be interested in hearing about them. If you’re an amateur scientist or know someone who is, please drop me an email!

Amateur scientists always have been and always will be around. I think that’s because people love science: they love discovering new things, they’re enthusiastic and want to take part. Curiosity about the Universe around us is part of the human condition.

*Astronomers still refer to the diameter of small telescope mirrors in inches, in part because many of the telescopes are made in the United States.
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Science spinning out of control? A planet by any other name

I’ve already ranted about science by press release, but another effect that seems to be on the increase is the situation where a press release is issues making a claim that is not really backed up by the science it’s reporting. The cynic in me says that this is because this is seen as the best way to get a headline.

There have been several recent cases, the most notable of which is 55 Cancri e: the “diamond planet.” This story garnered headlines and news stories around the world, but could it really be true?

Looking at the paper in question closely, the answer is well, maybe. That’s not what you get by reading the press release from Yale, however. Consider this. The number of times the word diamond appears in the paper is two. The number of times the word diamond appears in the Yale press release is nine!

In the peer-reviewed paper, the mentions of diamond are in the input to the physical model trying to describe the interior of the planet. There’s no mention of diamonds in the abstract or conclusions. The paper is titled “A possible carbon-rich interior in Super-Earth 55 Cancri e” – not so much clarity there, eh?

I should point out again that there is certainly a possibility that the core of this planet is some form of diamond. The problem is that what is told to the media is not what is told to scientists: there have also been studies that find the planet could have an iron-rich core as well. Somewhere along the line, this is got put forward as the most likely scenario, when that’s not really true.

Not quite as bad, but still annoying, is the “zombie planet“, also known as Fomalhaut b. I’ve also read this referred to as the “phoenix planet“, which at least makes a bit more sense. The idea is that it’s a planet that was announced, then doubt was cast upon it, and then it was re-claimed as a planet. It’s back from the dead, not undead!

A little more background for those interested: this planet was first claimed in late 2008 by scientists who imaged a small something orbiting Fomalhaut in optical light with the Hubble Space Telescope. Subsequent observations in the infrared could find no trace of the object, which is not at all what you’d expect. If anything a planet should be far brighter in the infrared than the optical. This is because planets are warm, and heat radiation is emitted at wavelengths longer than the eye can see. The original discovery paper also suggested this should be the case.

I’m not going to argue whether Fomalhaut b is real or not here – that’s for peer-reviewed journals based on observations. What annoys me about this story is not the science, but the cheap buy-in to a current fad in popular culture that is not even relevant! All to get into the headlines… it’s a little sad that science, or at least astronomy, has been reduced to this.

So, should we be worried about this kind of thing? A little: it seems to me that it’s on the increase, and it definitely pushes science towards the “fast food news ghetto“, something I’ve discussed before. The last thing that we need is this sort of trivialisation being caused – however inadvertently – by scientists themselves. These days scientists need to put the right spin on a story just like anyone else, but the story still has to represent the science.

To show that I’m not all doom and gloom: you can come up with a good, catchy (some might say wacky) headline without stretching the truth, here’s a great press release headline: “Astronomers discover deep-fried planets.” It’s about planets that have apparently survived their parent star’s expansion to become a red giant, and may have in fact caused the star to lose most of it’s outer layers. Cool! :)

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Why statistics literacy is just as important as science literacy

I’ve recently written about science literacy, which is a major problem in Western society (at least) and has been written about a lot. What has barely been discussed is the issue of statistics literacy: in general, the public’s understanding of uncertainty and probability is disturbingly poor.

The classic example is weather. We’ve all complained about the accuracy of the weather forecasts, but what many people don’t realise is that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology gives the probability of rainfall and a range of precipitation. The TV weatherman often presents the story without these, leading us all to expect rain when they say “Showers”. There is always uncertainty involved in science, but most people don’t seem to understand that.

The recent conviction of six scientists and a government official for failing to adequately assess and communicate the risks of possible damaging earthquakes in the Italian town of L’Aquila is another recent case in point. The story has sent the scientific community into an uproar, in part because the verdict has been incorrectly reported as convicting the seismologists of failing to predict the earthquake that subsequently occurred. While local officials may have wanted to play down the risks of danger, the seismologists simply stated that they could not be confident there would be an earthquake after a series of tremors in the preceding weeks. The court interpreted that, and the subsequent statement from local officials that there would not be an earthquake, as one and the same thing.

The whole sorry affair suggests that while we’ve been worried about science literacy for some time, misunderstandings about uncertainty, probability and statistics are perhaps of far greater concern. Statistics and science are intrinsically linked, however you cannot properly understand the latter without understanding the former. I don’t mean we should be teaching everyone statistical tests here; I’m talking about probability and uncertainty when it comes to any measurement. This is important for more than just science.

Any measurement comes with an uncertainty: you cannot measure anything in the physical world exactly. Uncertainties lead to the significance of a result, since if your uncertainties are too high, your result and interpretation cannot be very significant. This is where probability comes in. If a result or measurement is 95% significant, it means there is a 5% chance that it is incorrect. That’s still actually pretty high! Scientists often try to achieve greater than 99% significance before claiming a conclusive result (although sadly not always).

Any study or survey – scientific or not – will also have uncertainty associated with it, sometimes referred to as the margin of error.  Sample size is a key component of this, but is often overlooked. Political opinion polls are great example: they’re always reported without regard to the margin of error. It’s typically about 3% for a sample size of about 1000, which is the standard. That means there’s no statistical difference between a 50-50 poll and a 52-48 poll, yet pundits will always claim there is, often based on one poll.

Statistics and probability is often boring at school, so most people pay little attention to it. I learned most of the statistics I know as a PhD student because I had to, not really because I wanted to. I’m talking in this post about interpreting statistical results, not deriving them.

Understanding how to derive statistics is often seen has hard or boring, and it can be both. Understanding how to interpret statistics is straightforward, and not only that is vitally important, in more than just science.

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Humanising science: changing the perception of scientists

I was recently introduced to the Who’s the Scientist website by a tweet from Bec Schepers. The site has comments about and drawings of scientists by students in year 7 before and after a visit to Fermilab, a high energy physics facility near Chicago. The comments and drawings before sum up young people’s perception of scientists wonderfully: lab coats, nerdy, socially awkward.

The drawings and comments after the visit are dramatically different. Scientists are normal people: we like the same things that everyone else likes! We even play racquetball! And most importantly, we care about the world around us. The kids realised that scientists are human and science is a human endeavour. Everyone is curious about the Universe: scientists are just lucky enough to investigate parts of it as a job.

It reminded me that perception is an enormous barrier to getting kids (and the public) interested in science. I came across a similar thing during I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! - before going in the students all thought we would be geeky with no life outside of science and no social skills. I think that this stereotype has come from a few high profile exceptions, and that many of those are from a different era.

Somewhere along the line people have picked up the impression we’re all mad scientists or awkward men with thick glasses and lab coats. Hollywood has a lot to answer for! Happily though, things are in our power to change.

So what’s the best way to change the perception of us as scientists? Let them see us at work! Open days and school visits to labs and observatories give people a great feeling for what we do. If people meet us and see how normal we are, perhaps they won’t be so nervous or untrusting of science and scientists.

My workplace is an office, just like a lot of people’s. We have labs, but so do many hospitals; we have workshops, but so does a mechanic. We have families, play and follow sports, listen to music, love good food. Part of encouraging kids into science has to be letting them know this!

Finally, we also need to take public outreach seriously, by getting out there and telling people not just about our science, but about ourselves. Exposure and interaction to anyone viewed as “different” will almost always remove prejudices after all.

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