Tuesday, January 31, 2012

AAS Day 4

I had the best of intentions to get to Robert Kirshner's talk on "Exploding Stars and the Accelerating Universe" (an interesting topic to begin with, but I also know he's a good speaker) but I had to get gas and money before going in to the convention center so I didn't make it in time. The work he discussed is the research that led to the discovery of "Dark Energy" and was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. I knew that was research that would eventually be awarded a Nobel but what I wasn't sure of was how they were going to choose *who* to award given the large number of people who contributed to the discovery (a lot of projects are done by research teams). In the end it was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam G. Riess as team leaders. Hopefully someday I'll be seeing some of my co-workers getting that prize after figuring out what dark energy actually is with HETDEX!

I didn't have volunteer duty in the morning so I went to the "Solar System and Extrasolar Habitable Zones" session. Because the majority of planetary (in *our* solar system) research is presented at the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences and the American Geophysical Union meetings, there isn't usually that much of it at the AAS general meeting. (I really need to start trying to convince some of my co-workers that it's time for the DPS to come back to Austin - it's been here three times including the first unofficial one organized by Carl Sagan and Harlan Smith.)

The first talk from the session was about the Habitable Zone Gallery project that tracks the orbits of planets discovered around other stars and how they related to their parent star's habitable zone. There were also talks about the impact that formed the Moon, Kuiper Belt Objects, atmospheres of "Super-Earths" and Saturn's weird moon Iapetus.

I did another round of lunch and posters and grabbed stuff at some of the booths (including some interesting freebie journals) and then when to the NASA Town Hall. I went a little early, which turned out to be a good thing since it ended up packed. The first to speak was former astronaut John Grunsfeld who was just appointed as Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA (I wonder if that all fits on his business card?). Grunsfeld flew on five shuttle missions, including three Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions so he's another one of my heroes. :) He has a PhD in physics and has served as NASA Chief Scientist and as Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The second speaker was Dr. Paul Hertz, the new NASA Chief Scientist. Unfortunately I once again had a low laptop battery so I didn't take notes at this session either.

One of my co-workers was part of a session titled "Astronomers: Teach Climate Change" and I wish I could have attended it but I had to work at another session. I had a nice chat with him at lunch about the topic though and I was really pleased to hear that he's been incorporating climate change topics into his introductory astronomy classes at UT!

The session I was working was on Spiral Galaxies and it ran over, so I was a little late to the last talk I was working "Galaxy Formation Star-by-Star: the View from the Milky Way" by Kathryn Johnson. Thankfully they didn't really need much in the way of volunteer help!

Also today, the Kepler Mission team made even more great exoplanet announcements (there are always great press releases during these meetings and the exoplanet people really had some good ones this year!) including: NASA's Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets. So basically we're finding planets in habitable zones and finding Earth-sized planets so it is only a matter of time until we find the holy grail: an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone around a Sun-like star. (If I was a betting person, I take a chance and say we'll find one before the end of the year.) More about exoplanets tomorrow!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

AAS Day 3

I started off the day a little late (again) but had a chance to get a few photos of friends at posters before heading to my first session.


Drs. Mary Kay Hemenway and Chris Sneden and the SOFIA Teachers with their research poster.

I designed the poster above, so I had to get a photo of the authors with it!

The first session I worked was also one that I was interested in anyway - "Professional Ethics in Astronomy: An Ongoing Dialogue". One of the panelists was a professor at my university many years ago, but I'm pretty sure he didn't remember me. The discussion was very interesting and it makes me really glad that I don't have to deal with a lot of the issues that some of my colleagues do! I wish I had taken more detailed notes on the actual talks and resulting questions and conversations but my laptop battery was low. Anyone interested in the topic should check out the Sigma Xi ethics publications. Unfortunately the session that is probably most related to my own work - "Education, Outreach and Citizen Science" was at the same time so I wasn't able to attend.

The next talk I attended was the Annie Jump Cannon Prize lecture by this year's recipient, Rachel Mandelbaum. The Cannon Prize is awarded to a young woman PhD astronomer residing in North America. Looking over the list of previous winners I realized that I personally know several of them!

After a quick lunch and stroll through the posters, I worked a session on "Pulsars and Neutron Stars", which thankfully ended a little early so I could run over to catch the end of the "Working in Science Policy" panel. This is another one that I wish I could have attended, partly out of interest but also because one of the panelists was an old friend. I got a brief chance to say "hi" at the end of the panel, but moved aside so he could talk with people who were actually there to learn about jobs. :) While I was there I ran into another old friend that I had been meaning to catch up with and ended up sitting around and talking with her for the next few hours instead of attending more talks.

After catching up for a while we decided to go out for dinner at one of my favorites - Threadgill's (her choice since she's the one who doesn't get to Austin much, but there wasn't an argument from me!), along with her editor from Astronomy Magazine. We popped back over to the convention center after dinner and then I bailed on the UT Astronomy alumni party and the Saving Hubble film screening (which were both going on at the same time) and went home. I really don't have the stamina for these meetings that I did back in the 1990s!

One other thing from today, the NRAO announced that the VLA in New Mexico has been renamed the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in honor of the founder of radio astronomy. A very appropriate choice!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

AAS - Day 2

This was the first full day of the meeting after the previous night's opening reception (which I decided not to attend). I skipped the 8:00 a.m. welcoming address and 8:30 a.m. invited session this day in favor of a few extra minutes of sleep.

My first volunteer session was on "Exciting Astrophysics: Supernovae, Relativistic Astrophysics, and Other Results I" and it was my first introduction to the system they have devised for getting the talks into all of the rooms from the central "speaker ready room". The idea is to have all of the speakers pre-load their talks in one central location and they are then piped to the appropriate room that is already set up with a laptop and projector (I was pleased to see all of the machines were Macs - both in the ready room and meeting rooms!) There were a few hiccups in that first session, but the a/v staff were able to get it ironed out before we were scheduled to start. Having run the a/v for MANY astronomy meetings, I was impressed by the set-up, which seemed to work really well (at least in all of the sessions I attended or worked).

After lunch I went to the James Webb Space Telescope town hall, which turned out to be as interesting as I expected, but not at all as contentious as I thought it might be given budget issues. One of the neat things mentioned in one of the talks was the live JWST construction webcam where you can see into the clean room. The final talk in the town hall was how the telescope could be used in the effort to detect and characterize the atmospheres of all of the planets we're finding around other stars. I'm still kind of amazed that we even have detected the planets, much less their atmospheres!


Model of the JWST in the Northrop Grumman booth

I worked a second volunteer session - "Exciting Astrophysics: Supernovae, Relativistic Astrophysics, and Other Results II" and I then went to the "Challenges and Achievements in 50 Years of Human Spaceflight" talk by retired NASA astronaut Steve Hawley. The talk was basically an overview of the US (and some of the Soviet/Russian) manned space program, with Hawley discussing some of his own flights. Hawley has a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics, so he is "one of us", but it was still nice to see the standing ovation from 1000+ astronomers for an astronaut who has literally risked his life for our field.


Retired astronaut Dr. Steven Hawley speaks at the AAS meeting.

As a NASA astronaut, Hawley flew on a total of five space shuttle missions, including the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-31), a servicing mission to Hubble (STS-82) and the deployment of the Chandra X-ray observatory (STS-93). STS-93 was Hawley's final flight and has the distinction of being the first shuttle commanded by a woman - Colonel Eileen Collins. Hawley showed this neat photo and pointed to the streak saying: "That's me!". I have my own photo of that re-entry, since it was visible over a large part of Texas.


Image: NASA

Probably one of my favorite things from Hawley's talk was that space sickness is "Space Adaptation Syndrome" in NASA speak. He also had some interesting comments about how much quicker things progressed in the early space program (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) vs. now. Of course there is a lot more of an issue with getting and keeping funding then there was in the heady early days of manned space flight and the competition with the Russians.

After Steve Hawley's talk, the Historical Astronomy Division awarded the Doggett Prize to Woodruff T. Sullivan who presented a talk on "Cosmic Noise: The Pioneers of Early Radio Astronomy and Their Discoveries". I stayed for that talk but I was getting tired and decided not to attend the 8:00 p.m. public talk by Steven Weinberg on "Big Science in Crisis". I kind of wish I had, but I know that he is writing up the talk as an article for the New York Review of Books.

Friday, January 27, 2012

AAS 219 - Day 1

Before I get too far away from the actual event, I thought I would write up my experiences at this year's AAS meeting, the first I had fully attended since the late 1990s.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting returned to Austin earlier this month and I was able to volunteer for free registration. Because I fall in to a weird gray area in the astronomy profession (undergraduate degree and 15+ years employment in the field, but no PhD) I haven't been a member of the organization and even with membership the meeting costs are high. (They now have an educational affiliate membership category that I qualify for and I'm planning to join under it soon.) So working at the meeting seemed the best way to get a chance to attend. The trade-off is, of course, that I would have to work some sessions that I might not really be interested in and might miss some that I was. But given the way these conferences are scheduled it's pretty hard for everyone to get to everything they want to, so I would have missed stuff no matter what.

On Sunday I had to attend the mandatory orientation session, which was actually a good thing since it meant that I would already be around for the "Transit of Venus" special session put on by the Historical Astronomy Division of the AAS. Part of my reason in attending was just out of interest - I love history of science topics - but also for ideas in how to do our public outreach events for this year's transit. As exhausting as the 2003 close approach of Mars events were, I'm glad for the experience heading into this June's transit. Part of the popularity of the Mars event was the large amounts of press coverage stressing the "rarity" of the event. I'm putting "rarity" in quotes for the Mars closest approach because while *technically* Mars would never be that close again in our lifetimes, it will get nearly as close in 2035, still quite within the lifetimes of people who saw it in 2003. But, in the case of the transit of Venus across the sun, it's a pretty fair bet that anyone alive now will not get the chance to see it again since the next won't be for another 105 years. Although I don't want to make any predictions about advances in medicine, so who really knows for sure. But it's pretty safe to say that most people alive now will not get another shot.

Three of the talks were mostly about the history of the transits in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882, but the final talk was an overview of outreach activities for the 2004 transit and what is already underway in planning for this year's. I got several good ideas out of the presentation, so now I just need to start the actual planning!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored

I went over to the Harry Ransom Center last week to see a small display of historical astronomy texts (more on that later) and finally also saw their larger exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored shortly before it closed.

The exhibition focussed on the years between the world wars and the various organizations and methods that were employed to "to rid the country of offensive literature". I often find it hard to believe that things like this happened in our nation's history, but then I remember that during this same period, alcohol was banned by Constitutional amendment.

It seems that the rise of fascism, the outbreak of WWII and public Nazi book burnings took the wind out of the sails of organizations who had previously advocated doing the same thing in the United States. I loved this poster with a quote by President Roosevelt condemning book burning:



Of course, banning and/or challenging books, particularly in schools (e.g. this previous post), is still with us, but thankfully not to the extent it was in the period the exhibition focussed on. There were certainly works that were still "scandalous" and certain standards of "decency" were still imposed in movies and television for several more decades. (One could certainly make an argument that is still the case given restriction on certain language and nudity on broadcast television and the movie rating system and age-restrictions it carries. Not to mention fines for "wardrobe malfunctions".) For the most part though, the challenges on grounds of morality, decency, etc that arise today are by private organizations or individuals, and not government censorship.

This was the only other photo I snapped in the exhibition, since the proud label on the cover amused me and all I could think of was "The Library" episode of Seinfeld.



It was a fascinating collection of materials and I was glad that I had a chance to see it. Now I'm eagerly awaiting the next big exhibition coming to the HRC - The King James Bible: Its History and Infuence.This will be the only other US venue for the exhibition that just concluded its run at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. The main thing I'm looking forward to is the material on the Bible before the King James edition, which of course is closely related to my interest in Tudor History!



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Stop SOPA and PIPA!

I decided not to blackout any of my blogs or sites today mainly out of laziness (and fear that I'd totally screw something up) but I support those who did. I wrote my congressional representatives and I hope those of you in the US will do the same. I also want to take issue with those who claim that people who are against SOPA and PIPA are by default FOR piracy. Of course that is not the case, it's a false dichotomy. They (and I) are for reasonable IP protections that don't break the internet and prop up old business models that don't want to be dragged into the 21st century.

BTW, Lamar Smith (R-Tx), author of SOPA, was at the American Astronomical Society meeting last week and spoke for about 10 minutes before the "Science and Society" talk. Unfortunately he didn't take questions, but I was sorely tempted to yell out while he was trying to tell us how much of a nerd he was "Then why did you write a bill that could break the internet??".

If you want to learn more about the issue here are some great places to start:

Google: End Piracy, Not Liberty

EFF: Strike Against Censorship

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

Monday, January 16, 2012

My First Creation Debate

As I was migrating everything back to this site from the science and skepticism one that I'm shutting down, I came across a few draft posts that I had never finished and published. This is one of a creation/evolution debate that I attended in April 2009. Thankfully I have notes that I typed up close to the event, so hopefully not too much is misremembered.



Well, my first live and in person creation debate, since I've watched them through the internet before. Unfortunately I didn't get around to typing up my notes until more than a month after the actual debate, so some of my recollections might be a little fuzzy now. Head over to Skeptiblog for Michael Shermer's write-up. (One small correction that I would make to Shermer's write-up is that the arena is primarily used for volleyball, not basketball... but that doesn't really have any relevance to the debate!)

My first reaction was to be a little surprised at the turnout. I know some people were organized church groups, as well as students who probably were there to get extra credit for a class. And I'm guessing there were some folks there from the CFI Austin. I also saw some of my co-workers from Astronomy (which wasn't too surprising). I was also delighted to see one of my former physics professors, Austin Gleeson, on the Q&A panel (at the far-left in the photo below).



Another surprise was that the content of the debate actually had nothing to do with its advertised title of "Was Darwin Wrong" (I think... I can't be 100% positive now that that was the exact title, but I know it was something similar to that). The science and skepticism side was primarily represented by Michael Shermer from the Skeptics Society, and that was one of the main reasons I was there (I've been a member for a few years now). The other side though were two people from "Reasons to Believe" (shortened to "Reasons" from here on out), which I wasn't as familiar with. I was expecting someone from Answers in Genesis or Discovery Institute (at this point I should admit that I didn't look up the names from the poster beforehand to find out more about the non-evolution side of this debate). I was only familiar with the Reasons folks in passing, so I wasn't as up to speed with their "brand" of creationism/intelligent design (although they refute those labels for their organization).

Reasons's main approach seems to be to try to shoehorn science into the Bible, and vice-versa and that rather than arising through natural processes, God has driven the creation of the Universe, our solar system, life, and man. Unfortunately I don't have a whole lot of specific examples they gave, but see Shermer's post (and the other he linked to within his post) for how they go about it.

Interestingly, a lot of the things that were covered in the Rare Earth lecture that I attended a month before came up in this debate, but the Reasons group sees those factors as proof of divine guidance of creation. Of course, they basically have it completely backwards. They approach it as "life on Earth is the end product, so these factors must have been necessary" as opposed to, "these are the factors, what is the end product that could arise from those initial conditions?".

As I expected, the Reasons folks threw out a lot of claims, out-of-context quotes and outright fabrications that would have been impossible for Shermer to completely refute in the allotted time. I was actually kind of surprised that he didn't just come out and say "you're doing it backwards" - since really that's all he had to do. Reasons calculates that the odds against life on Earth forming are (at the time of this debate in 2009) 1 to 10^-556 due to the potential variables in nature (temperature that water freezes or boils, the gravitational constant, etc) so that must be proof that God has driven our creation. Well, no, we evolved under those conditions, but if there were slightly different conditions, who's to say that some other form of life wouldn't have arisen? (And I'm sure if they evolved into a life form with civilizations they would have individuals who were equally convinced of their special place in the Universe and that it was created especially so their form of life would arise.)

I don't have any notes from the panel part of the debate, but I recall that science was well represented by the UT folks (yeah, I'm probably totally biased about that!).



If I get a chance to attend another event like this, I'll take along a digital recorder so I can write-up a more comprehensive post, but I hope anyone who made it through this gets a feel for what the event was like.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Importing posts from old blog

Apologies to anyone who follows this site with an RSS reader - you're going to get bombarded with a bunch of old posts I'm importing from my science blog that I'm merging in to (back in to, technically) this one.