Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shark Week is about neither real sharks nor does it last a week

I was eating at the bar of a sea food restaurant the other night and they had Shark Week playing on the TV. I couldn't help but notice it and wonder, "They're still doing this?!" Yes, they are still doing this and much of it is still B.S.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday morning music break

Chockukmo with Good Night:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hiring from a cognitively diverse pool

I really like this idea of hiring code validation specialists from the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Face it, most if not all scientists (astronomers) inhabit some position along the spectrum. We are good at doing repetitive tasks for long periods of time, we love telling people arcane facts, we can manipulate numbers and search for patterns quickly and efficiently. If these are some of the skills that we value in our field of science, why not specifically target people from a population that is diagnosed along these lines? 

Well, that's exactly what one start-up company is doing for code validation. A fun quote from the Slate article:
When they first started inviting me to come into the office, or to a drinks night they have every now and again, I would just kind of say, "You know, I'm kind of a little bit nervous because I’m kind of socially awkward," Leslie [one of the autism-spectrum employees] recounted. And [the boss] just kind of looked at me, and he was, like, "Mark, have you seen our team? Everyone’s socially awkward... Everyone’s a bunch of geeks, and they’re all very accepting and friendly."
I just hope we can say that everyone in astronomy is accepting and friendly when it comes time to do an article about how astronomy is harnessing the talent from among those on the autism spectrum. After all, it's not like we can deny that people on the spectrum exist among our ranks. Right?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Whoa! Congresswoman stands up for women in science

Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California's 14th district writes a remarkable letter to the Chief editor of Science and the AAAS about women in science:



Friday, July 25, 2014

Finding E.T. via their EPA non-compliance


Here's a fun idea, captured in a TIME article by Michael Lemonick:
....a team of Harvard astronomers has come up with a third way [to search for intelligent alien life]: look for atmospheric gases generated not by biological processes, but by alien factories.
The idea comes from my department chair, Avi Loeb, a freshman researcher Henry Lin, and SAO scientist Gonzalo Gonzalez Abad. Sound crazy? Well, 
Loeb is something of a master at asking nutty-sounding questions, then demonstrating that they’re not nearly as nutty as you might think. He co-authored one paper, for example, on how to look for cities on Pluto, and another on why it makes sense to look for habitable planets orbiting dead stars.  
This latest effort is no exception. “It’s not crazy, at least as far as I can tell,” says Heather Knutson, a Caltech astronomer who specializes in looking at exoplanetary atmospheres, and who wasn’t involved in this research. “Avi in particular is willing to speculate on some pretty far-out topics, but no one doubts his ability to calculate the relevant physical models correctly.”
Here's the preprint of the paper. My previous post about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence here

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Measuring the radius of a planet that is precisely >this< big

Thanks to NASA's Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system. The size of the exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-93b, is now known to an uncertainty of just 74 miles (119 kilometers) on either side of the planetary body (see Ballard et al. 2014). 

Using data from NASA's Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the size of a world outside our solar system, as illustrated in this artist's conception.
Image Credit: 
NASA/JPL-Caltech
The findings confirm Kepler-93b as a "super-Earth" that is about one-and-a-half times the size of our planet. Although super-Earths are common in the galaxy, none exist in our solar system. Exoplanets like Kepler-93b are therefore our only laboratories to study this major class of planet. 

With good limits on the sizes and masses of super-Earths, scientists can finally start to theorize about what makes up these weird worlds. Previous measurements, by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, had put Kepler-93b's mass at about 3.8 times that of Earth. The density of Kepler-93b, derived from its mass and newly obtained radius, indicates the planet is in fact very likely made of iron and rock, like Earth. 

"With Kepler and Spitzer, we've captured the most precise measurement to date of an alien planet's size, which is critical for understanding these far-off worlds," said Sarah Ballard, a NASA Carl Sagan Fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of a paper on the findings published in the Astrophysical Journal. 

"The measurement is so precise that it's literally like being able to measure the height of a six-foot tall person to within three quarters of an inch -- if that person were standing on Jupiter," said Ballard. 

Kepler-93b orbits a star located about 300 light-years away, with approximately 90 percent of the sun's mass and radius. The exoplanet's orbital distance -- only about one-sixth that of Mercury's from the sun -- implies a scorching surface temperature around 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit (760 degrees Celsius). Despite its newfound similarities in composition to Earth, Kepler-93b is far too hot for life. 

To make the key measurement about this toasty exoplanet's radius, the Kepler and Spitzer telescopes each watched Kepler-93b cross, or transit, the face of its star, eclipsing a tiny portion of starlight. Kepler's unflinching gaze also simultaneously tracked the dimming of the star caused by seismic waves moving within its interior. These readings encode precise information about the star's interior. The team leveraged them to narrowly gauge the star's radius, which is crucial for measuring the planetary radius. 

Spitzer, meanwhile, confirmed that the exoplanet's transit looked the same in infrared light as in Kepler's visible-light observations. These corroborating data from Spitzer -- some of which were gathered in a new, precision observing mode -- ruled out the possibility that Kepler's detection of the exoplanet was bogus, or a so-called false positive. 

Taken together, the data boast an error bar of just one percent of the radius of Kepler-93b. The measurements mean that the planet, estimated at about 11,700 miles (18,800 kilometers) in diameter, could be bigger or smaller by about 150 miles (240 kilometers), the approximate distance between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. 

Spitzer racked up a total of seven transits of Kepler-93b between 2010 and 2011. Three of the transits were snapped using a "peak-up" observational technique. In 2011, Spitzer engineers repurposed the spacecraft's peak-up camera, originally used to point the telescope precisely, to control where light lands on individual pixels within Spitzer's infrared camera. 

The upshot of this rejiggering: Ballard and her colleagues were able to cut in half the range of uncertainty of the Spitzer measurements of the exoplanet radius, improving the agreement between the Spitzer and Kepler measurements. 

"Ballard and her team have made a major scientific advance while demonstrating the power of Spitzer's new approach to exoplanet observations," said Michael Werner, project scientist for the Spitzer Space Telescope at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. 

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is responsible for Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. JPL managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency's Science Mission Directorate. 

For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: 

For more information about Spitzer, visit: 

Whitney Clavin Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-4673 whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Big problems at academic field research sites


Since arriving at Harvard I've become close friends with Katie Hinde, who runs the Comparative Lactation Lab, where she uses evolutionary theory, lab studies and field work to study the relationship between mother's milk and child development. Katie is an active blogger and Tweets as @mammals_suck

As a field researcher, she and her collaborators became all too aware of the problem of sexual harassment and assault at distant field sites where ethical standards and reporting protocols are not often made explicit and bad behavior is often rife. To quantify just how prevalent sexual harassment/assault is at scientific field sites, they conducted a scientific survey of their field. Think of it as an anthropological field study of field anthropologists. However, their respondents weren't limited to just field anthropology, and they ended up having respondents across 31 different social, life, and physical sciences. Their refereed journal article was published in PLOS ONE today. 

Here's the press release:

Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault

For many social, life, and earth science disciplines, conducting research in field settings is an integral component of scholarship. However, anecdotes shared via email or whispered in the corners of hotel conference rooms suggested that sexual harassment and assault were common experiences for many young scientists, especially women. Biological anthropologists Kate Clancy (UIUC), Robin Nelson (Skidmore), Julienne Rutherford (UIC), and Katie Hinde (Harvard) set out to explore more deeply the pervasiveness of these experiences and what the results they published on July 16, 2014 in PLOS ONE are a sobering wake-up call.