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Showing posts from 2014

How online comments matter, and Black lives so often don't

I recently read an article at Uppercutting about a WTF_was_that_racist Tweet by sports journalist Jason Whitlock. The article is about the use of a "racist dog whistle" and the risk of lending credibility to white supremacists by making that sort of statement as a black person. The piece is well worth reading. But what inspired me to write here is what I found in the comments area.
Many people respond to terrible things that are written in online comment threads by saying something like, "Ugh! Never read the comments." I disagree with this stance. Comment threads are where you get to see how people actually think. After all, online commenters are actual people, fellow citizens of our country. While it's easy and perhaps preferable to think that the people who work with and around us are the Good People, and that racist online comments are left by Bad People. But people are people. 
The more I've learned about the history and nature of racism, the more easi…

NASA K2's first planet discovery

Cambridge, MA - To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the Kepler spacecraft's death was greatly exaggerated. Despite a malfunction that ended its primary mission in May 2013, Kepler is still alive and working. The evidence comes from the discovery of a new super-Earth using data collected during Kepler's "second life."
"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries. Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies," says lead author Andrew Vanderburg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
NASA's Kepler spacecraft detects planets by looking for transits, when a star dims slightly as a planet crosses in front of it. The smaller the planet, the weaker the dimming, so brightness measurements must be exquisitely precise. To enable that precision, the spacecraft must maintain a steady pointing.
Kepler's primary mission came to an end when the second of four reaction wh…

Not much new under the Sun

The protests against police brutality, centered around the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, have forced race into the consciousness of most Americans. Those who support the protests focus on the pattern of abuse that they represent. Those who stand in opposition of the protests tend to focus on the specific details of each killing, becoming armchair lawyers and ballistics experts. Black America sees the police killings as symptoms of systemic racism. White America, for the most part, wants to see the killings as unfortunate but isolated events divorced from racist factors. Indeed, racism isn't a thing, right?
Here's an excerpt from a blog that seems to exemplify the view of the latter group: [T]he shooting is being used to prove a point about police discrimination in America. The means of distribution are simple: destruction of private property and interference with commerce. In other words, brute thuggery and ignominious acts of violence.  Note the assumption that all…

Black lives matter. Anyone? Anyone?

I simultaneously have much to say and little to say about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have much to say because these men are so similar to the Black men in my life: my uncles, cousins, nephews, my sons, myself. I don't have much to say because, hell, what is there left to say? There's only so many times I can repeat the notion that Black Lives Matter.
I keep making this argument in various forms, and from white people I keep hearing, "Yeah, it's tragic, but..." But, nothing! If people accept the radical notion that a 6'4", 240 lb Black man is a living person, a citizen of our country, and a human being with hopes, dreams, and aspirations for a better life, then there can be no "but." We live in a country where we get to hear the "good aspects" of even our serial killers, who, BTW, are predominantly white. We hear about how they were clean-cut, peaceful, good students and how their friends and loved ones couldn…

ExoLab Update: Ellen Price and the Photoeccentric Effect

Today's guest post is by Ellen Price, a Senior astrophysics major at Caltech. 
Professor Johnson pitched me this project idea just after I took his Introduction to Astronomy class (Ay20) in 2012. At that time, I was a sophomore with very little research experience, I knew absolutely nothing about exoplanets. In fact, I had pretty recently considered dropping my astrophysics major entirely. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do, but classes were a lot more enjoyable when I felt like they mattered in the context of my research. Prof. Johnson’s Ay117 (Statistics and Data Analysis for Astronomers) class, for example, was immeasurably important for me – I learned scientific programming in Python and Bayesian statistics for the first time. 
I attended the Exolab group meetings and started to pick up exoplanet jargon and, eventually, I started to absorb the science, too. Prof. Johnson warned me up front that this wasn’t going to be a “packaged” project for an undergrad, and it was…

Are Black People Wrong About Police Abuse?

This morning, I came across this polling result regarding the police shooting of Michael Brown:

This plot, this statistical result, demands an explanation. How is it that two groups of Americans can see the world so very differently?
Setting aside any appeal to actual evidence regarding racial bias in the use of deadly force by the police, of which there is plenty, I can think of two explanations for the statistical result shown above:

My Response to Andrew Sullivan's Thoughts on Affirmative Action

Dear Andrew,
In your recent post Thoughts on Affirmative Action, early on you claimed that the G.I. Bill "was a huge step forward for meritocracy in America." You should be very careful with your history here. As pointed out by Ira Katznelson in his book When Affirmative Action Was White (see also this NY Times book review),  Jim Crow laws and practices were baked into the G.I. Bill. The congressional "Dixiecrats" at the time ensured that the administration of G.I. Bill benefits (and Federal Housing Administration loan insurance, and WPA jobs) was left up to each state individually. This meant that Black soldiers in the South returning from WWII were often denied government benefits from these so-called meritocratic programs. Black veterans in the North were barred from buying houses in white neighborhoods, and couldn't obtain loans in Black neighborhoods due to housing shortages and the practice of redlining. 
From the NY Times book review (which is easier to …

Updates from the Exolab: Characterizing a Brown Dwarf Found with Kepler

This is a guest post from my graduate student, Ben Montet. In it, he describes his work studying a brown dwarf in the Kepler field, which is documented in a recently submitted paper available on astro-ph at
Ben is a fourth-year graduate student in the Exolab studying M dwarfs and their companions. He is also interested in using dynamical effects in multiple-planet systems to better understand both the planets in these systems and their host stars. He has previously written for Astrobites and FiveThirtyEight. You can find him on Twitter @benmontet.
The longtime follower of this blog has no doubt read a considerable amount about exoplanets. But in my opinion readers have been underserved when it comes to their more massive cousins, the brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs have masses to low to ignite hydrogen fusion in their cores, yet too massive to be planets (they are capable of fusing deuterium, unlike less massive gas giant planets). However, the truth is, brow…

Some questions from readers

A Black scientist wrote to me in response to my list of white privileges: I prefer to stay out of discussions about race for personal reasons, but in reading your most recent blog post, I keep feeling that there is an undercurrent of "class-ism" that is generally overlooked.  For example, I would add to Dr. McIntosh's list something along the lines of "I can enjoy a meal in a wealthier part of town without having my presence questioned because of my race," the assumption being that I must be too poor or uneducated to be in such an establishment given my race.  I imagine that this would be an unlikely occurrence for a member of a majority group.  Is this something you have come across?My answer: I agree with your addition to Dr. McIntosh's list. This highlights how class and race are intertwined. I strongly encourage you to read Seeing White. Chapter 5 covers the intersection of socioeconomic class and white privilege. In that chapter, the authors point out th…

Owning my privilege - one white woman's perspective

Guest post by Erin

A couple Saturdays ago I attended an anti-racism meet-up in Boston.  I was struck by a number of things, but the first thing that made me pause was the meeting space itself.  The Yvonne Pappenheim Library on Racism is hidden gem tucked just off of Boston Common, with walls lined from floor to ceiling with books about our country’s history of racism.  Thousands of books written on a topic that even I, a self-described liberal, progressive woman, will only discuss in highly guarded environments.  Here’s a topic that I’m able to dance around because of my privilege.  I’ve tried my damnedest to shift discussions that veer too close to race to subjects of class, socioeconomic status, under-privileged, underrepresented minorities without addressing the role that white privilege plays in our society. Yet, there I was, surrounded by thousands of published accounts of the reality in which we live.
I believe it’s guilt that has kept me from exploring this for so long.  The not…

Race and Racism: Listing White Privileges

A friend of mine trained in psychology rolls his eyes at the mention of Peggy McIntosh's Invisible Knapsack. "She's been on that analogy for more than 20 years now. Does anyone even own a knapsack anymore?" He's saying this tongue-in-cheek since he's well aware of white privilege, even his own. But while the analogy of a backpack filled with invisible tools and benefits is possibly overused in psychology circles, I think it's far less familiar to astronomers. So I figured I'd reproduce Dr. McIntosh's list here for reference since it is so germane to the discussion of white privilege, race and racism in our field. After perusing it, I challenge you to name some of your own privileges if you are white. If you are non-white, yet heterosexual (heteronormative) then I challenge you to list your privileges as a straight person, or like me, your male privilege. 
Keeping our privilege out of our pockets (or knapsacks) and in the foreground is one of the …

Race and Racism: Seriously? Another post about privilege?

I've felt simultaneously heartened and saddened by the recent introduction of the word "privilege" into the lexicon of astronomy diversity discussions. I'm heartened because awareness about one's privilege is a vital step in actually doing something about inequality in astronomy and the world in general. On the other hand, I'm saddened by the most common reaction from privileged individuals, namely a short period of feeling disoriented, confused and/or guilty, followed by a shrug and a return to business as usual (Well, that sucks, but what can be done?). With the use of the word followed by those shrugs, I fear that the word "privilege" is slowly losing power because people aren't changing. I feel the word already slipping into the realm of buzzwords. This would be tragic, because privilege is one of the primary manifestations of racism (and sexism, and heterosexism, and ablism) in our society today.

By saddened I don't mean to imply any s…

Einstein's antiracism activism

From Amazon:
Nearly fifty years after his death, Albert Einstein remains one of America’s foremost cultural icons. A thicket of materials, ranging from scholarly to popular, have been written, compiled, produced, and published about his life and his teachings. Among the ocean of Einsteinia—scientific monographs, biographies, anthologies, bibliographies, calendars, postcards, posters, and Hollywood films—however, there is a peculiar void when it comes to the connection that the brilliant scientist had with the African American community. Virtually nowhere is there any mention of his relationship with Paul Robeson, despite Einstein’s close friendship with him, or W.E.B. Du Bois, despite Einstein’s support for him.  This unique book is the first to bring together a wealth of writings by Einstein on the topic of race. Although his activism in this area is less well known than his efforts on behalf of international peace and scientific cooperation, he spoke out vigorously against racism b…

Martin Luther King on the need for restructuring

We all know that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Fewer of us know what he really stood for, fought for and just how radical his views were considered at the time, and even now (the FBI knew, though, thanks to their copious wiretaps and 24-hour spy program in the years following the 1965 bus boycotts).

Here's a side of MLK that most don't know: “Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.“When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate healthc…

Between two ferns feat. President Obama

I had to watch this twice. The first time I was too surprised that this actually happened! I was like Obama, "Seriously?!" The second time I was over my disbelief and free to just laugh. I'm a big fan of Zach, Between Two Ferns, our president and universal health care. So quad-win!
Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama from President Barack Obama

The Poker Tournament

When I was a graduate student, I started playing online poker and I became a student of the game. I kept detailed logs of the tournaments I played in, key decisions, outcomes, etc. When I wasn't talking about astronomy or basketball, I was talking about poker. I did well online, but my learning really paid off when I was a postdoc at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA). In Honolulu, I found a vibrant underground poker scene, in which games of all levels, from \$1-\$2 to \$10-\$20, were spread in people's apartments, garages and trailer parks. The games were safe, because at any given moment there was at least 2-3 cops, firefighters or Marines at the table. The people running the games took a percentage of each pot to pay rent, as well as to valet park the players' cars, do food runs and comp drinks.
I did well in Hawaii's poker landscape, typically playing \$2-\$5 no-limit hold 'em. It paid for Marcus' diapers, date nights, and even helped wit…