Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shameless self-promotion

The folks over at the 3 Quarks Daily blog have opened nominations for their second annual prize in science for the best blog writing.   I've self-nominated one of my better-reviewed posts, but if you'd like to nominate any other posts of mine (or from any other science blogger), please go to their announcement of the contest and post the permalink  in the comments section. In particular, make sure the post was written on or after May 24, 2009, and make all nominations before May 31.

Here are the contest details, copied word-for-word from the contest site.  Again, post any nominations on their announcement page, not here!  Thanks in advance!

The winners of the science prize will be announced on June 21, 2010. Here's the schedule:
May 24, 2010:
  • The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite science blog entry by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win.
  • Blog posts longer than 4,000 words are not eligible.
  • Each person can only nominate one blog post.
  • Entries must be in English.
  • The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
  • The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after May 23, 2009.
  • You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog (and we encourage you to).
  • Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
  • Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
  • Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.
  • You may also comment here on our prizes themselves, of course!
May 31, 2010
  • The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
  • The public voting will be opened immediately afterwards.
June 7, 2010
  • Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).
June 21, 2010
  • The winners are announced.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A wacky set of planets

Today, astronomers from the University of Texas at Austin announced some exciting new findings about a solar system 44 light-years from Earth.  They used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the family of planets around the star upsilon Andromedae, and their results raise the question as to what a "normal" system of planets is.  The answer to this question has important consequences for the search for other Earths and life on other planets.

Let's start by reviewing our own Solar System.  In our Solar System, all eight planets orbit the sun in nearly circular paths, and all of those paths line up with each other and with the sun's equator.  It's easier to describe with drawings.  Here's a schematic of what our Solar System would look like if you were out in space over the sun's north pole and looking down:

Image Credit: NASA/Caltech

Recognizing Bad Science Part 1

This is the first part of what will be an occasional series on recognizing bad or poor science. 

One of the aspects of astronomy that makes it so fun is that there are so many weird and wonderful things in the cosmos, from black holes to the Big Bang.  Unfortunately, this vast zoo of the unexpected and unknown has resulted in lots of unscientific and unsupported claims.  If you are interested in the Universe but don't have the time to spend learning advanced physics and math, how can you separate good science from bad science and pseudoscience?

Thankfully, there are some basic criteria that just about anyone can learn to apply that will help.  In this new occasional series, I'll outline some of the easier criteria to apply.  Tonight we start with bad science as seen on TV. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Moving on up to the East Side (of Texas)

Sorry to have been quiet recently.  I've two excuses.  The first is that I've been working on an entry about recognizing bad science.  This was inspired by a slew of poorly-made astronomy documentaries I saw on TV recently, as well as some websites and comments people have sent me with "science" arguments that are so poorly made, they aren't even wrong -- they're just jibberish.  But despite several hours of writing, re-writing, planning, re-planning, editing, redacting and agonizing, the entry hasn't worked.  There's too much to write for one blog entry.  So, I'm going to try breaking it up into individual points, and we'll see how that goes.

But the second and bigger reason is that I've been focused on finding a job.  The money that pays my salary runs out in August, and as I mentioned back in March, the job market in astronomy is bad and getting worse.  I am therefore very excited and VERY relieved to announce that I've been offered a job, and that I just officially accepted it this afternoon. Starting in August, I'll be an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University -- Commerce.

TAMU-C is a university in northeast Texas between Dallas and Texarkana.  The department I am joining emphasizes both research and education.  I will have the chance to work with students who are interested in careers in science, as well as future middle- and secondary-school science educators.  The campus hosts a planetarium and associated public outreach.

This will be a new phase of my career, and from this side it looks to be a daunting challenge.  I'll be sure to let you all know how it is going!

Last, a note to my personal friends who read this blog.  I thank you all for the support, help, hints, and options you've given me over the last few years, and especially this year.  I regret that I have not (yet) thanked you personally, and I hope that you do not feel like I've been ignoring your emails and messages.  While I've been fretting over my future, I've invoked the common introvert defense mechanism of crawling into my shell until it all passed. I didn't want to bother y'all with my problems, and I didn't want to admit how completely overwhelmed I've felt.  I did greatly appreciate each and every show of support and offer of advice and help.  I'm starting to emerge from my self-imposed exile now, so I'll be in touch soon. :)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More news briefs

I'm back home from last week's working trip to Tucson, and I am working on a new original blog post that I hope to get posted later today.  In the meantime, here are a few astronomical odds and ends:

  • Run away! Run away! A relatively new field of astronomy involves finding objects that are flying away from their site of origin at high speeds, often due to a supernova explosion or a close encounter with another object.  A few days ago, a team using the Hubble Space Telescope and data from two different ground-based telescopes (the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the European Very Large Telescope) announced that they had found a star 90 times that mass of the sun speeding away from R136, a giant star cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way's companion galaxies.  What I like about this story is not just the interesting object, but also that the finding illustrates how a lot of astronomy discoveries are made.  The researchers brought together data taken from four different cameras on three different telescopes, and much of those data were taken for unrelated projects.  So, thanks to a little luck and a lot of data sharing, the most massive runaway star yet known has been discovered.
    The other runaway object in the news is what could be a black hole that has been shot out of a nearby galaxy during the merger of two black holes.  Or it could be a somewhat rare type of supernova.  Or it could be a normal-sized black hole that is rapidly eating material from a very bright companion star.  Or it could be the chance alignment of a supermassive black hole in the very distant universe (which is cool but not rare) with a nearby galaxy.  What I don't like about this article is that a little extra data could have narrowed the possibilities quite a bit.  Maybe the astronomers were not able to get more data, or maybe they were worried that someone else was working on the same object, or maybe the graduate student who was writing the paper had some academic deadline to meet.  I fully understand each of these concerns, but the result is a lot of conjecture.
  • Carnival of Space #153  It's a new week, which means a new edition (number 153, to be exact) of the Carnival of Space, a collection of links to some of the most interesting astronomy and space-related blog posts of the past week from across the Internet.  This week, it is being hosted at Cumbrian Sky.  Be sure to have your red-blue 3D glasses handy.
  • Staff appreciation, astronomy style The University of Texas at Austin celebrated Staff Appreciation Week last week.  They led of the week by honoring Lara Eakins, one of the indispensable staff members in the Department of Astronomy.  Lara helps out with undergraduate education, troubleshoots media problems in classrooms, and leads campus star parties and tours of our facilities for many visiting groups.  Nary a week goes by without several Lara-led groups of excited, twittering elementary school children walking past my office door on their way to see our rooftop telescopes.  Way to go, Lara, on a much-deserved honor!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Odds and Ends: Tucson edition

This week I am in Tucson, visiting collaborators at Steward Observatory.  We are working on some fairly technical and involved issues, so I won't try and describe it here quite yet.  And, since I'm here to work on those tricky issues, I won't have a lot of time for blogging.  So, in the meantime, here are some short tidbits:

  • Catch up on some of the best of last week's blogs with the 152nd edition of the Carnival of Space, hosted this week by Ryan at the Martian Chronicles.
  • Last week, in the Discovery Channel's new series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, Stephen Hawking warned that we may not want to try and communicate with extraterrestrials, as they might come here to kill us all and steal our resources.  It should be noted that Hawking is not the first person to suggest this; I've heard this argument many times.  I think Hawking's point, that space-faring aliens would be so advanced that they may not respect us as an intelligent species, is quite possible, especially when we look at human history.    Universe Today has posted an interview that with Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson that appeared on CNN where Dr. Tyson discusses Hawking's opinion from a sociological standpoint.  He also mentions the cold, honest truth: we have no idea what an alien intelligence would be like.
  • However, while we may not need to fear aliens, we may need to fear black holes.  And not tiny black holes like the Large Hadron Collider won't make, we're talking black holes with millions to billions of times the mass of the sun.
  • I must be scowling when I go in to restaurants and so be placed in the angry section of the restaurant.  Yesterday at a Cracker Barrel in Goodyear, Arizona, a couple of men at the table next to me were making horribly misogynistic comments.  One of the men even refused to use feminine pronouns to refer to women.  It was very uncomfortable to listen to; thank goodness they finished their meal shortly after I arrived.    Today, at Tucson's El Charro, a  guy at the next table were laughing about how his dad used to mess with a "flaming liberal *$#%#@ astronomy professor" by training lights on the telescope as often as possible.  Seriously.   And this guy found it uproariously funny -- I think that's just kinda weird.
  • Speaking of weird, The Onion reports that scientists have found that dinosaurs aren't extinct; they're just hiding.  I thought there must be something lurking in the shadows.