Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wishing on stars.... with accurate science

There's a meme which keeps going round Twitter (and this morning appeared in my Facebook) stream which says:

We apart from being depressing, it's not actually true. And I am finally decided today to write why not.

All of the stars we see in our night sky are part of our own Galaxy - the Milky Way.

This is how the night sky looks from a really dark site (in a beautiful image taken by Stephane Vetter which appears on APOD). We live inside our galaxy, so we see stars in it in all directions, and along the disc of the galaxy (which is shaped a bit like two fried eggs held back to back) we see lots of stars all close together on the sky.

This is a picture of a nearby galaxy - the Andromeda galaxy, which has a similar structure to what we think the Milky Way would look like from the outside (also from APOD)

Andromeda Galaxy: Credit & Copyright: Jason Ware

We can measure distances to stars and other structures in our galaxy, so we know to a good level of confidence that it's about 100-200 thousand light years across. So every star we see in the night sky is closer than 200 thousand light years away. That means the light from them travelled for 200 thousand years or less to reach your eye.

 In fact most bright stars in the night sky are much closer than that. Most of the stars we see in the sky are within a 1000 light years (e.g. this list of the brightest 26 stars in the night sky), so the light from them has taken less than a 1000 years to reach your eye.

So if the star you wish on is a bright one in the sky (at a guess I'm going to say it is), that means it's probably within 1000 light years from us. So the light from it has been travelling for 1000 years to reach your eye. That's a long time, but it's not a million years, and it means that it's unlikely that that star is already dead.

 Most stars live for billions of years - only the very biggest live for shorter - but even that is a million years.

 The things which are millions of light years away, and in which the stars likely are already dead are all the other galaxies in the Universe. However the most distant one you can see with your own eye is the Andromeda galaxy (check out that faint blob below the Milky Way to the right of the all sky picture above - that's Andromeda; or see me point it out in this video). Andromeda is far away - about 2.5 million light years away, but even at that distance most of the stars you see whose light has taken 2.5 million years to reach your eye will still be alive.

Basically what I hope I've convinced you is that unless you're dreaming on stars in galaxies so faint you can't see them with your own eye, the statement above just isn't true.

So keep dreaming. That star most likely isn't dead already, and your dreams don't need to be either. After all I got to become a professional astronomer and have two beautiful kids as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Twitter Recommendations for Astronomy Researchers (from DotAstronomy)

At the recent dotastronomy, @drphilmarhsall and myself ran an unconference session with the aim of collecting the wisdom of dotastronomy attendees on the reasons we like Twitter (all but 3 of the attendees were signed up), why we think it's useful to our research careers and as a tool for communicating about our science.

What follows are the notes I took during that session under various categories.

Twitter 101

Twitter signup now easy and guided to find your interests.
Predictive follow suggestions will be made when you sign up. 

I have an account now what?

(Specifically for people who signed up a while ago but have never done anything with it).

Some of us use tweetdeck to filter - others don’t

Some people follow everyone
Some people follow only selected/few
It’s OK to follow/unfollow as suits your wishes

A lot of us use Twitter for work only (Facebook for friends)

Who you follow depends on your interests

Follow people you know on Twitter and the people they are following

Try things
Go at your own pace

Use conference hashtags #AAS #NAM #dotastro! To find people. 
Search on “astro” in the username to get started

Best Practices for Tweeting

Talk to people (interact)
Don’t just tweet for the sake of it…. Tweet interesting things
Guidelines for tweeting at conferences exist
Tweet things you are happy anyone reading
The press (might) read these, so tweet only things you are happy anyone reading.

I'm too Busy For Twitter

Don’t be frightened/worried
you don’t have to read everything
You don’t have to tweet every day

Using Twitter to Help in Your Research

It's a great tool for self promotion (amongst other Twitter users)
Tweet your papers
You may hearing about jobs early and/or jobs you wouldn't find otherwise
It's good for general networking – drops barrier for networking at conferences (e.g. Tweetups)

BUT – everyone could be reading what you tweet, so only tweet things you are happy anyone (research competitors?) reading.

Ideas for Tweeting about/for Research

Taking notes at seminars/meetings (you can tweet to Evernote as your note taking method)
Boiling topics down to most important 140 characters will help you understand the subject

You will be on top of breaking news in your field (telescopes, funding, politics etc)

You can find quick answers for things…. - the lazy web

Using Twitter to Communicate with the Public

When you have that conversation on the train that starts "Did you hear about….?" – now the answer is more likely to be yes, as you will be on top of trending topics in astronomy.

Conversation will be important here to actually do outreach - you want your tweets retweeted widely to reach people who don't follow you (real outreach).

Join in with popular tags 
e.g. #bbcstargazing on the night of the show was fantastic

The Demographic on Twitter

Probably narrow group of followers for many researchers - so tweeting just to your followers may not be effective outreach. 

Need to get yourself retweeted (by Dara O’Briain etc.) to reach other audiences 

General consensus about retweeting social conduct - don’t ask to be retweeted (except rarely?)

Tweet on popular hashtags to reach wider audience. 

Tools for Tweeting

A lot of us use Tweetdeck, but there were some strong anti-tweetdeck sentiment in the room. 
Tweetdeck pros and cons
  • Not casual/feels like work
  • Processor hog
  • Can look overwhelming
  • Easy to filter
  • Easy to manage multiple accounts (e.g. a personal and a work one, and/or accounts for organizations).
An alternative: 
Twitter app in the corner of your screen - Not what you’re doing, it’s a sidebar

Tweeting using smart phones and/or tablets also popular for in talks etc. 

Tweeting for an Organization

Will be rules sometimes/usually.
Tweet responsibly - tweet things you are happy anyone reading.
Have your own personal account as well. 

What do we want/get out of Twitter?

Stumbling on interesting things
Socially filtered information (instead of RSS?)
Get people to read your blog/website
Virtual office chatter

Convincing People to Tweet

We get things out of it
Any evidence for the benefit of the use of twitter? - Conclusion was nothing convincing, but we keep looking. 

Also since the meeting, we found links to two interesting articles in the Journal for Communication of Astronomy with the Public about the use of Twitter: 

Tweeting Space Craft: Communicating Space Science in the Age of Web 2.0, by Janet Vertesi (Princeton University) in 2010.


Live Casting: Bringing Astronomy to the Masses in Real Time, by Pamela Gay, Phil Plait, Jordan Raddick, Fraiser Cain and Emily Lakdawalla in 2006. 

Tweets from WinSciFest Talk

I gave a talk on Galaxy Zoo at the Winchester Science Festival last weekend. I think it's the first public talk I've had live tweeted, so I thought it would be interested to record that all here.

 Thanks for all the nice comments, and an interesting record of my talk for me. :)

Women in STEM at Portsmouth

I'm part of the University of Portsmouth Athena SWAN committee. We're working to submit for a Bronze Award in November to this organization which "recognises and celebrates good employment practice for women working in science, engineering and technology (SET) in higher education and research. "

One idea we had to get started was a blog promoting the many women working in STEM fields at our university. So I now have another blog to run! ;) 

Here's the first post - pointing out a poster which exists profiling some of the young women researcher in science and enginneering at Portsmouth.

Including our very own Heather Campbell from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, pictured helping to install the low band antennas of the LOFAR station in Chilbolton.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Galaxy Zoo Science Wordl

(Cross post from Galaxy Zoo blog) I've given a couple of public talks recently on results on galaxy evolution from Galaxy Zoo (at the Hampshire Astronomical Group, and the Winchester Science Festival) and one of the things I like to point out is the quantity and variety of science results we're getting out. To illustrate that I made the below wordl of words appearing in the abstracts of all the peer reviewed science papers the Galaxy Zoo science team have put out.


 This is based on the 30 papers about astronomical objects submitted up until July 2012. I just missed Brooke's first paper submitted by a day or two, and I love that this was out of date just as soon as I made it. :) I realise I should sort out things like per cent - percent, and galaxy, Galaxy, galaxies technically being the same thing. But still I think it's interesting to look out.

My DotAstronomy4

Its been well over a week since I got back from dotastronomy 4, and the time has really flown by (both at the conference and since). This blog post is mostly a collection of links and reminders for myself about what I did at dotastronomy. If you also find it interesting that's great, but it is not a comprehensive review of dotastronomy so if you want that go somewhere else. 

Other people at the conference have written blog articles about their experiences (Sarah Kendrew, Astronomyblogger, OrbitingFrog, Astropixie).

In years to come I suspect what I will remember most about dotastronomy is the journey up to the Haus de Astronomie on the furnicular railway.

The second of the two trains. 

View down the track from near the top.

I enjoyed this blurry effect as we travelled through a tunnel.

We all had to remember (and exert willpower) to not "get off at the Schloss" (beautiful castle overlooking Heidelberg). 

The food was also interesting - I didn't realise there was so much meat in German food! ;) I enjoyed the visual presentation of this desert. 

 The theme of my dotastronomy this year seems to have been learning about visualisation techniques. I particularly enjoyed Noah and Julie's talk on the subject and I was annoyed to be in a different unconference session and missed their workshop. I'm planning to put more thought into the visualisations in future papers, and especially in the public talks I use. 

For my hack day I joined the project initiated by Sarah Kendrew with the idea of making visualisations of links between terms in astronomical papers. There is a website called Brainscanr which does this for medical research, and Sarah thought it could be interesting in astronomy too. Orbitingfrog also got involved, developing the tools to download the text from the arxiv, strip it of non-astronomical terms, and properly deal with plurals etc. What I did was work out ways to visualise this. I worked with Gephi to make network diagrams of the results. Using an input .cvs file with one paper per line, and each term in each (abstract of) each paper on that line, this tool can make a network diagram like this one which shows links between terms in abstracts which contain the words "dark energy". 

I also learned about using the Javascript tools at Rickshaw to make plots live in the browser. Finally I messed around with wordls which are always fun (if of dubious use). 

The results of our hack are online here

While I was doing this I also learned about Culturomics which lets you make plots of the frequency of any terms you like in arxiv papers. Useful. :) 

I also participated in Amanda Bauer (astropixie)'s project to make a "Science it's a Universal Thing" video (in reponse to the "Science it's a Girl Thing" debacle).

I love the video Amanda and Nicole made, and although I'm not sure it would be ideal to interest teenagers in science, it is well deserving of it's "Best Reminder of Why We Got into this in the First Place" hack day prize. 

I was an extra in "S**t Astronomers" say too - with some stupid questions in the "talk" that was a fun few minutes!

On the last day Phil Marshall and I ran an unconference session aimed at collating the collective wisdom at dotastronomy on the most effective ways for researchers to use Twitter (both to enhance their research/networking, and for science communication). This has been done before (e.g Pamela Gay et al. as part of Live Casting: Bringing Astronomy to the Masses in Real Time in 2008, and by Janet Vertesi in Tweeting Spacecraft in 2010) but we are still thinking about plan to write up our updated collective recommendations. 

Kelle Cruz's talk on changing the culture of professional astronomy has also really stuck in my mind. I'm not sure it's possible, but it's a lovely idea, and I often wish inparticular that junior scientists could be less stressed out. We all too often focus on job insecurity instead of our love of the work itself, and it was nice to have a reminder of the fruitlessness of that. I was also reminded of the tools and tips on the Astrobetter blog, which are an absolutely fantastic resource. 

Throughout the conference I pushed a wiki to collect recommendations and links from the dotastro community - which is filling up well. I also ran on there a survey of equipment and programming tools favoured by the group, which I presented to the conference using Prezi (one of the recommendations which I had not tried before). Following that I'd recommend running surveys with a Google Form (in Google Documents).

I have vague plans to collate the recommendations and links a bit better (and perhaps submit to the Astrobetter blog), and there are also other plans to document this years dotAstronomy (and the 3 that proceeded it) a bit better, so stay tuned on that.

Dotastronomy is a great conference, and a completely unique experience. As was the case last year in Oxford, I've returned home enthused and inspired and ready to get to work (a good thing given my last week!). For me dotastronomy is a chance to update my arsenal of skills, but more importantly to reconnect with the excitement of doing and communicating astronomy with a like minded group of people. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Happy 5th Birthday to Galaxy Zoo

Chris Lintott has written a fantastic article "What we still don't know" in honour of the 5th Birthday of Galaxy Zoo today.

It has a preview of the relaunch of Galaxy Zoo we're currently planning.

I joined the Galaxy Zoo science team in October 2008, just over a year into the project when the first data was around to play with, and when I moved to Portsmouth. It's been a fantastic ride since then and I can't wait to see what happens in the future.


Monday, July 9, 2012

My dotastro Twitter Visualisations

On archivist: dotastro

Graph of people recently tweeting dotastro (not sure this is working).

Also will update with the last one (downloading and using TAGSexplorer when/if I get it working).

Instructions for doing all this: Fun with Twitter Visualizations.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Galaxy Zoo at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science

Cross post from Galaxy Zoo blog

The Galaxy Zoo science team is well represented this week at the annual European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, hosted this year at the Pope's University (or more properly Pontifica Universita Laternase) in Rome, Italy.

It is a beautiful location for a conference


 with the most amazingly decorated lecture theatre I've ever been in


 and just up the road from the Colluseum

 A session on the first day on the Structure of Galactic Discs perhaps explains the interest of many of us on the Galaxy Zoo team. I spoke in that session on my recent results looking at bars and the atomic gas content of nearby galaxies. Brooke Simmons (now settling in as a new postdoc at Oxford after finishing her PhD at Yale recently) had a poster on some work I'm sure you'll hear about soon about some very interesting totally bulge free disc galaxies which still have actively growing supermassive black holes in their centres.


 And Portsmouth PhD student, Tom Melvin (who is working with me) had a poster on his work using Galaxy Zoo: Hubble data to look at the redshift evolution of the bar fraction (more on that very soon too I hope).


 Finally, talking in the session on interacting galaxies which runs tomorrow will be Kevin Casteels from Barcelona (who we all must congratulate on his very recent PhD) who has been working mostly with Steven Bamford on morphological signatures of closely interacting pairs of galaxies (arxiv link to paper, a blog post has been promised). We all had a lovely (and typically late Italian) dinner together on Monday night - along with a Galaxy Zoo baby: Alia (Kevin's daughter).