Thursday, June 23, 2016

Astronomy is Exciting: Here’s Where You Can Learn More

Astronomy is a fascinating and vibrant field, with important discoveries occurring at an astonishing rate. Although these discoveries are widely reported in the press, even well informed readers may want more background than can be given in a typical newspaper or online article, or may be overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available on the Internet. Where can they start? How can they find reliable information? How can students consider whether a career in astronomy may be right for them?

To answer these questions I’ve collected the information and links given below. There's a lot here but it represents only a small part of the information that’s publicly available. I'm sure I've missed important resources, so please send me suggestions for additions to this list, along with any corrections or updates that might be needed for any URLs. 

As a roadmap, here are the different sections:

Observatory news
Astronomy news websites
Astronomy blogs
Online videos about astronomy
Astronomers on Twitter
Astronomy books
Experimenting with images
Visual observing
Exploring the sky with your computer
Citizen science projects
Career advice

Observatory news

For the latest press and image releases in astronomy you can go to websites for various observatories in space and on the ground. Here’s a selection, beginning with the observatory that I work for, Chandra:

Figure 1: A screen capture of the Chandra webpage, taken just after our 15th anniversary in 2014. Credit: NASA/CXC.

These websites contain a lot of background information, e.g. there’s a field guide to X-ray astronomy on the Chandra website and an Explore Astronomy feature on the Hubble website.

Astronomy news websites

Here are a few websites devoted to astronomy news:

More generally you can use Google News to search for new results in "astronomy" or "black holes" or countless other topics of interest. I check the Google News science section regularly.

Astronomy blogs

Here is a small sample of the many excellent astronomy-related blogs that are available:

Brian Koberlein has a blog about different topics in astronomy and maintains an active Google+ account.

Phil Plait, otherwise known as the "Bad Astronomer", has a blog at Slate about science, with a lot of astronomy discussion.

Amanda Bauer, aka astropixie, has a blog about astronomy and life as a scientist.

Emily Lakdawalla has a blog about planetary science. Also check out the other Planetary Society blogs.

Ethan Siegel has a blog, also found at Forbes, focusing on astronomy, with beautiful graphics and detailed explanations. It’s one of my favorite astronomy blogs.

Sabine Hossenfelder has a blog about science, concentrating on physics but with some astrophysics.

Matthew Francis has a blog about science, especially physics, astronomy and science communication.

John Johnson has a blog covering a range of topics including exoplanet research and diversity in science.

Peter Coles has a blog "about the Universe, and all that surrounds it".

Sean Carroll has a blog covering a range of topics in physics and astrophysics, including cosmology. Warning, some equations have been spotted.

Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) has a new image and description, with good background information and links, every day.

Online videos about astronomy

Phil Plait is compiling a set of astronomy videos as part of the CrashCourse series.

The PBS program NOVA has a large set of videos about space.

Coursera has over a dozen educational videos on astronomy, and many other fields of science.

David Kipping from Columbia has an impressive set of videos on exoplanets and related research in his Cool Worlds series.

Katie Frey from Wolbach Library at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has curated an extensive set of astronomy videos.

Many other videos can be found by searching YouTube.

Astronomers on Twitter

Here’s a list of astronomers and astronomy organizations I follow on Twitter and here are their tweets. Some astronomy communicators are included on this list and there are a bunch of astronomy writers included in my Twitter lists of science writers and science journalists.

Astronomy books

All the above info is free and you're welcome to stick with that, of course. These books are not free unless you find them in a library, so I'll just give a short list:

Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos” is a book by two colleagues of mine, Chandra’s science visualization lead Kim Arcand and Chandra press officer Megan Watzke. I reviewed the book’s science content and wrote a blog post about it.

For people interested in how astronomical data is collected and beautiful images are made, I highly recommend the book “Coloring the Universe: An Insider's Look at Making Spectacular Images of Space”, by astronomy professor and image expert Travis Rector, Kim Arcand and Megan Watzke. For more details you can read my blog post review of this book.

Figure 2: The cover of Coloring the Universe, showing an optical image from the NSF’s Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory of IC 1396A, a dark nebula more commonly known as the Elephant Trunk Nebula. Credit: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF).

For an acclaimed account of exoplanet work, one of the hottest fields of research at the moment, you can read “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars” by Lee Billings. It’s had excellent reviews at many places, like one by Dennis Overbye at the New York Times.

Another exciting and fascinating field is cosmology. Harvard professor Bob Kirshner wrote an engaging account of the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, in “The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos”. Here’s a sample chapter.

For a fascinating account of the science and history of black hole research, I recommend “Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved” by Marcia Bartusiak.

The hottest field in astrophysics right now involves detecting and interpreting gravitational waves, thanks to LIGO’s ground-breaking and well-described detection of these ripples in space-time. Janna Levin has written an interesting and well-timed account of the work leading up to this discovery, called Black Hole Blue and Other Songs from Outer Space.

For more comprehensive but also expensive books about astronomy, there are several introductions to astronomy for non-science majors beginning college. One of them is “Cosmic Perspective” by Jeffrey Bennett, Megan Donahue, Nicholas Schneider, and Mark Voit. I haven't read it but I know several of the authors are very good.

You can use Google to search for other popular books on astronomy.

Experimenting with images

If you're interested in playing around with astronomical images, there are guides on accessing images, viewing them and using software to combine them into color images. Here’s a guide to creating images from raw data at the Chandra website. See the tutorial at the top. You can create your own color Hubble images, with this extensive guide.

You can collect images of any part of the sky using the Digitized Sky Survey and then follow the instructions given above to make color images. These images are lower in quality than specialized ones from Hubble, for example, but the unlimited field of view is an advantage for large objects.

Figure 3: An image of the Flame Nebula by Chandra image processor Joe DePasquale, using data from the Digitized Sky Survey. Credit: DSS.

Visual observing

For tips on observing the skies, along with a bunch of excellent articles about news and research, you can check out Astronomy magazine and Sky and Telescope magazine. Only a subset of the magazine’s content is available online.

If you have access to a smart-phone or iPad, there are plenty of apps that help in observing the sky, including use of GPS to give a star map of any region you're looking at. Some apps are free and others are not, depending on the sophistication and depth of the database, etc. Several lists of the top apps can be found with Google.

Depending on your location, there may be astronomy clubs nearby. Also, physics and astronomy departments at Universities sometimes hold Open Houses or public talks. Use Google to check for both.

Exploring the sky from a computer

If the skies are cloudy, or if it’s too cold or there are too many mosquitoes, you can explore the sky using your computer. One option is Google sky, either in the web-based application or as part of the desktop program Google Earth. For the latter you have to download Google Earth but it’s more fun to use than the web-based program.

Another excellent program is the World Wide Telescope from Microsoft. This also has a web-based application, but the desktop program is more powerful.

Citizen science projects

Citizen science projects involve voluntary work contributing to active science programs. One motivation is to “help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them”. Here are a few of the more popular projects:

Galaxy zoo, involving classifying galaxies. This project was a trendsetter in citizen science for astronomy.

Planet hunters, helping astronomers look for planets using data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

Spacewarps, involving looking for distortion in images caused by gravitational lensing.

Planet Four, involving classifying features on the surface of Mars.

Gravity Spy will help LIGO improve their search for gravitational waves. At the time of writing it’s still in beta test mode.

Those are just a few of the individual projects that are available. The Planetary Society has an excellent web-page summary of different citizen science projects.

Figure 4: A screen capture of the Galaxy Zoo webpage. Credit: Galaxy Zoo.

Career advice

I’ve pulled together some career advice about becoming an astronomer:

Here are a collection of tweets by and responses to astrophysicist Katie Mack on "Advice for Aspiring Astrophysicists" with some tips for aspiring astronomers/astrophysicists in preparing for a possible career in the field.

Duncan Forbes wrote a paper called “So you want to be a professional astronomer” (click on “PDF only” in the upper right).

The Royal Museums Greenwich explains “How to become an astronomer”.

Here is advice from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory on “Being an astronomer”.

Here’s a brief explanation from Caltech about “How can I become an astronomer?”. Note there is a problem with the link to the AAS career brochure at the end. This is the correct link (

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Value of Good Communication Between Science Journalists and PIOs

Writing is a critical part of science communication, both for general audiences and for expert ones.  Science journalists, public information officers (PIOs) working for universities and other institutions, and scientists themselves – among others – do this writing. I started my career doing research in astrophysics, trying to master the dry, technical writing favored by academic journals. I then changed course, and for the last 13 years I have worked in publicity with NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, helping to turn technical writing – that not many people understand – into writing that many people understand. Although I started as an astrophysicist, I’m now closer to being a PIO.

During this second career I’ve developed a keen interest in science writing and science communication, along with the interface between science journalists and PIOs and others working in publicity. Therefore, I have been fascinated by the recent discussion at Undark magazine of “A Looming Rift in Science Journalism” by Aleszu Bajak and “Science Journalists Vs. Public Information Officers” by Paul Raeburn regarding “recent disagreements over who should control the professional group to which they both belong”. The professional group of interest is the National Association of Science Writers, which contains both science journalists and PIOs. However, only journalists can be officials, a controversial point for PIOs, whose membership fees provide a significant source of income for NASW. In his article Raeburn suggests having a splinter organization called The National Association of Science Journalists”. This would solve some problems, but I think it would have some important drawbacks, as I discuss here. [Note, I have never been a member of NASW, but think my outsider’s perspective may be of interest].

Earle Holland, an accomplished, now-retired PIO, explains in one of the many excellent comments to both articles (73 at last count for the Bajak article and 23 at last count for the Raeburn article) that it’s important to keep PIOs and journalists together in NASW so they can learn from each other. I agree. If there is a splinter association for science journalists, I fear that a large fraction of science journalists would leave NASW and they would become even more separate from PIOs than before, possibly increasing friction and a lack of understanding between them.

A personal example of useful science journalist/PIO communication comes from the now-defunct Science Online meetings. I attended the second-to-last meeting in 2013 and listened to many authors and science journalists discussing their craft. A highlight was meeting and working with Nadia Drake, a terrific science writer for National Geographic and other outlets. We led a discussion of how press releases could be improved from a science journalist’s point of view. This led to several blog posts, one written by me and one written by Nadia before the meeting, plus a follow-up post and some useful reflection on how we do publicity with Chandra.

Conflicts of Interest

Here’s another example of useful science journalist/PIO communication. David Dobbs – a writer I have great respect for – commented on Raeburn’s article, writing about the problem he would face if PIOs were to become NASW officers:
“I must leave because some of the publications I write for stipulate that I cannot be a member of organizations in which membership might create apparent conflicts of interest “[COI]. 
This is something that I had never considered before and sounds like an insurmountable problem. However, as Pete Farley pointed out in a follow-up comment:
“…it would be helpful for this conversation if you [David Dobbs] or someone else could provide a real-life sample of the contractual language you describe.”
I agree with Pete Farley that this would be helpful, especially because I have several naive questions – I’m definitely no COI expert – about the details. First, it isn’t clear to me that having one or a handful of PIOs as NASW officers can potentially create a bigger COI than having dozens or hundreds of PIOs as non-officer members of NASW, with their many different employers. In any particular case there might be several non-officer members generating the possible COI rather than just one officer. My point is why wasn’t this a problem before? Sure, the individual officers have more power than non-officers, but Dobbs’ statement above doesn’t make a distinction between different types of members. Is there a threshold of membership status where one goes from not being a potential COI to becoming one? What about members who are at an intermediate level, such as on the NASW board?

Second, I can imagine COI occurring for science journalists being NASW members, both officials or otherwise. For example, what if you see press coverage by other news organizations arguing that a new science result is a breakthrough? However, this story happens to be in a field you know about from previous stories and you find, by talking to your expert contacts, that the result is very likely wrong. Think of arsenic life and Carl Zimmer’s Slate story, for example. You start writing your story but then find that a New York Times or Washington Post writer also did some careful investigation, uncovering important details such as fraud or COI, that you didn’t discover, again casting serious doubt on the original stories. Wouldn’t you want to mention that in your story? But, if New York Times or Washington Post reporters are members of NASW and more specifically if a member happen to be the one who wrote the good investigative story, does that create a COI?

What about working on a story about the commercialization of space and wanting to write positively about the Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin? If writers from the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post are members of NASW, is that a COI? There are bound to be other examples – people usually work for someone, after all.

These are real questions of mine, rather than rhetorical ones, as I haven’t given this sort of COI much thought. Although these examples are indirect, I’m not sure that anyone can be immune to COI, by joining a large association with a diverse membership. Resorting to full disclosure seems to be a commonly-used remedy to this problem. Do some publications specifically bar the use of full disclosure statements for apparent COI?

Respect for PIO work

I won’t join the “angry turn in some of the comments” as Paul Raeburn puts it, but I often suspect that science journalists think PIOs automatically exaggerate and distort science results. This can sometimes stem from casual rather than malicious remarks. For a personal and minor example, look at the comment-section discussion between Ann Finkbeiner – another writer I have great respect for – and me in a 2012 blog post titled “Trust no one, and other lessons I learned from physics reporters” written by Erika Check Hayden, at The Last Word on Nothing (LWON) blog. Erika Check Hayden mentions a comment by Ann Finkbeiner in her article:
“LWON’s own Ann Finkbeiner says she largely trusts physicists, because they demand highly significant statistical results. But, she adds, “all this believability and trust is called off when the subject has political implications” – as happens frequently with federally funded labs and agencies.”
I work for a federally funded observatory and I responded to Ann’s comment pointing out that there are many different motivations for doing publicity and it’s important to remember that poor publicity can damage the reputations of scientists and institutions. Ann then responded by saying:
“And maybe the problem I’m having is less with the institutions than with the “PR machines” you talk about. Big breakthroughs, farthest whatnots, tantalizing hints of particles – and I know if I call the actual scientist, I’m going to hear, “Well, yeah. That’s sorta 2 sigma.””
 This led to an even longer comment from me – polite but perhaps tinged with self-defensiveness – explaining that we require results to be more significant that 2-sigma to do a release. I also gave more details about the importance of maintaining a good reputation in doing publicity, including the need to have scientists cooperate with us for future stories. I also point out that, like umpiring in sports, publicity efforts tend to be ignored when a good job is done and panned when mistakes are made. This can lead to a distorted view of PIO work. This discussion happened online, but I think it’s even better if it happens in person, at meetings like NASW.

These interactions are why I’d like to see science journalists and PIOs in the same room, even if it’s just once a year. We have a lot to learn from each other. Previously I wasn’t motivated to join NASW but now that I’ve heard PIOs make up a substantial fraction of membership, rather than the tiny fraction I’d assumed, I’ve changed my mind. However, if it’s just PIOs talking to other PIOs, and I don’t have the opportunity to meet fine writers like David Dobbs, Ann Finkbeiner, Paul Raeburn and Aleszu Bajak, my motivation to join would diminish.