April 28, 2007 at 14:57 pm | Leave a Comment
We are PART of It!
Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy Blog is always battling dumb portrayals of science in movies, on TV, in the media, etc. You know what I’m talking about—wrong lunar phases in movies, stupid things like having Barbie say “Math is hard!” and mis-statements about physics and astronomy in newscasts. It happens every day, and nobody in the media really gives much of a hoot because to them, science is just another beat, another story, another “weird” thing to write about to keep people from worrying too much about all the other problems in the world. Don’t wanna write about the White House breaking the law cuz it’s too hard on one’s reportorial skills or the editor doesn’t want you to? Well, hey, let’s write a story about weird science. That’ll deflect people’s attention! Don’t understand anything about astronomy or physics or math, Mr. or Ms. Reporter? Doesn’t matter as long as you have a snappy lead, right? (And, just for disclosure, I consider myself a journalist too, even got a degree in journalism and mass communications—so I know their jobs and I know their beats. But I still get to call shenanigans on ‘em!)
Okay, so I’m a bit cynical about media portrayals of science and misuse of science terms in movies, TV and news. Wouldn’t you be if your profession were continually misrepresented by the media? If you’re a scientist, you continually read really silly stereotypes about science and scientists, like the one about how scientists are just geeks. Or you go to movies and see scientists being portrayed as loners, or evil geniuses, or lonesome weirdos working at the frontiers of science. Wearing pocket protectors. And thick glasses.
It’s kind of like being an atheist and reading stories about how atheists supposedly worship Satan (hello!! atheists profess no belief in any deity, and last time I looked, Satan was supposedly the Lord of the Underword in several mytho-romantical religious cultures). Or being a Muslim and finding out in the media that you’re a bloodthirsty bomber, or being a Christian and reading that all Christians hate everybody, or being a woman and reading in the media that all women want or need is a good man, or being a teenaged girl and finding out that your biggest goal should be to look anorectic so you can attract boys. Or… well, I could go on and on. Stereotypes and mistakes in the media are an annoyance, but if people who read and watch media are well-educated enough, they can look beyond the stereotype. (And the sad state of science education in my country is another tangent I could go off on, particularly since it seems that many reporters don’t take ONE class in science when they’re in J-School… but I digress…).
What got me up on my Science Mistakes Soapbox today? Reading CNN.com. Which kind of surprised me, because usually their science stories are pretty good and reasonably accurate most of the time. They don’t make the usual bone-headed mistakes that I see so often in much of mainstream media.
So, today I was reading about Sunita Williams, one of NASA’s astronauts on the International Space Station. She was all over the news last week (at least in Boston) because she ran the Boston Marathon in space while the race was being held here on Earth. There was lots of cool coverage about her training and how she’d run it on the treadmill while whirling around the planet at 17,239 miles per hour (27,273 kilometers per hour). Today’s story (which you can read here), talks about Sunita catching a ride home soon, if the Atlantis shuttle launches on time.
The part that set me off on this discussion was the last part of the first sentence (called the “lead” in J-talk), which said:
“…so she doesn’t have to spend more than six months in the cosmos.”
In the cosmos??? That one definitely jarred my attention, and I asked myself, “Okay, what part of “cosmos” doesn’t the story writer understand?”
For those of you following along at home, here’s a nice definition of the word at Dictionary.com. It cites the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of “cosmos” that says, in part:
“the universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious whole.”
The use of the word “cosmos” in the CNN story is wrong. And you don’t even have to be a scientist to know it. Any reasonably well-educated person should know what the word “cosmos” means, right? Probably the writer didn’t want to say “outer space” or “on orbit” (although I don’t know why not). But, substituting the word “cosmos” is just plain wrong. We’re already IN the cosmos! Earth is part of the cosmos. Low-earth orbit is part of the cosmos.The flowers in my yard are part of the cosmos.
The tale comes from the Associated Press, which I used to admire quite a bit for its accuracy and good writing. But, it seems they’ve let their standards slip a bit. I think that somebody’s writer is a little non-cosmos-mentis. and shame on CNN for just running it as is, without correcting the mistake.
April 26, 2007 at 15:07 pm | Leave a Comment
R.I.P. Bohdan Paczynski: 1940-2007
I just got the news that astrophysicist Bohdan Paczynski died last Thursday after a battle with brain cancer. Bohdan was one of the most helpful and insightful scientists I ever had the opportunity to talk with. Some years ago I was writing an article about gravitational lensing (one of his specialties) for Sky & Telescope magazine and I had an extensive correspondence with Bohdan about his work. In a few well-spoken sentences he helped me understand several aspects of gravitational lensing, not an easy thing to explain on the best of days. He kept in touch with me, and as deadline time drew near for me to turn in the article, he was quite helpful in emailing me updates of the latest work being done in the field. I remember getting an email from him asking if I could give him a call. As luck would have it, I was on a cruise ship serving as an astronomy lecturer for a couple of weeks, and we had just left Montevideo, Uruguay. I wrote him back and said that I was onboard a ship and that I could do emails quickly and cheaply. And thus we finalized my article, him in his office at Princeton and me 500 miles offshore in the South Atlantic. I’ll never forget how helpful Bohdan was, and I’ll miss him greatly.
So, time passes and things change. There are a good many helpful people out there in the astronomy community who love to talk about their work. I often think about the time Gene Shoemaker escorted a group of us down into Meteor Crater in Arizona one year. I miss him, too, even though I didn’t correspond with him nearly as much as with Bohdan or others in the astronomy community. So, I salute their passing and hope that new generations of astronomers will rise up to continue the paths they started.
Speaking of things changing, Mark Petersen sent me a link to a movie that will shift your thinking a bit. Check it out!
April 20, 2007 at 21:07 pm | Leave a Comment
But Back in time for Astronomy Day
I took some time away from writing here to work on the next issue of GeminiFocus, the twice-a-year publication from Gemini Observatory. It’s due at the printer in a week or two, and I’ve spent the past few weeks working on articles for it.
I’ve worked with Gemini Observatory for several years now, doing writing and editing in support of the public information office. Before that, the only contact I really had with the observatory was when I needed images for publications. One of my favorite Gemini images is a shot of the superbubble complex N44 in the Large Magellanic Cloud (some 160,000 light-years away).
This thing looks so cool; three-dimensional, spacey, colorful—all the things that make it aesthetically pleasing (to me, anyway). And, as always, I think I’m pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing, all courtesy of astronomers who are out there checking out the universe and sharing it with the rest of us through beautiful telescope views like this one.
So, in honor of Astronomy Day, I’m going to go out Saturday night and check out the sky with my binoculars to see what I can find. It may not look as pretty or high-resolution as this image,but that’s not the point of Astronomy Day. The point is to (as the cruise line commercials here in the U.S. say) get out there!!
That’s what Astronomy Day is all about; getting out there and checking the sky out for yourself.
April 9, 2007 at 15:35 pm | Leave a Comment
One of the things I do is help scientists describe their work to the public. Sometimes this means writing a press release or reading over an article someone has written for a publication. Whatever it is, my job is to find the most important parts of the story and bring them forward so that the scientist and the public (reporters, usually) can have a meaningful discussion about the work. That’s not always easy, since there are stark differences in the way scientists write up their work for their peers and the way they might tell their story to the public. You can chalk those differences up to the rigors of scientific publishing, where the methods of doing a science experiment are as an important part of the story as the results.
Every discipline in science has its jargon, its ways of communicating among the participants. For example, if you go to the doctor and have an examination of your right side above your waistline, your doctor might write up that the examination centered on the abdominal RUQ. Jargon, to be sure, but it’s a shorthand that describes exactly what was examined. Or, let’s say you go to a talk about the early universe, as given by one astronomer to a group of colleagues. You might hear the following: “We’re using long-period gamma-ray bursts as a probe of the intergalactic medium neutral fraction at z=6.3.”
Translated, that means that they’re looking for long-period gamma-ray bursts (longer than a few seconds, typically), which scientists think happen when a huge star explodes and emits a jet, or when a white dwarf star merges with either a neutron star or a black hole. The action emits a huge burst of radiation, which speeds across the universe. As it goes along, it passes through clouds of gas, clouds of gas and dust, and through clusters and possibly other galaxies. As it does, that radiation (light) is absorbed by whatever is in the way. You can see that absorption when you study the light with special instruments called spectrographs. The results tell you the chemical makeup of any clouds of cold gas, or gas and dust in the space between galaxies back in the early universe (more than about 9 billion years ago). So, in that one sentence, the scientist says a lot, but it’s buried in specialized language.
In a science paper, the typical form is to describe (briefly) a finding, and then go into details about how that finding was made (equipment, constraints, etc.), and then go into the details of the finding. Often this means that the “news” of a paper is buried IN the paper, and not up in the first few sentences, as you’d see in a newspaper story. This is perfectly normal and nothing to be worried about—unless you’re also trying to explain the “newsworthy” part of a science discovery to the public. Then you have to find the “meat” of the story, and lead with it in the first few sentences. So, a story about the gamma-ray bursters might read like this if you saw it in the paper: “Scientists at Gemini Observatory are using the 8-meter telescope to peer back about 9 billion years to study bright flashes of light called gamma-ray bursters. The light, which passes through clouds of gas and dust on its way across the universe, can tell astronomers the makeup of that gas and dust, as well as how quickly it’s moving.”
That’s my job—to identify the news in a story and help tell that story. I might do it for a press release or a newspaper article or a magazine article, or (my favorite) for a planetarium show or documentary.
So, a few weeks ago I was talking to a scientist who studies the effects of space weather on our communications systems. Spaceweather (which you can learn more about here, and here, and most especially here) is basically a catch-all term for interactions between material that has been belched out from the Sun and our planet’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere. Auroral displays (northern and southern lights) are the most obvious manifestation of space weather that we can see.
There’s another side to space weather, however. A strong event can knock out telecommunications systems, power grids, and GPS satellite service. This last is important because we depend on GPS timing signals for an incredible number of things in our daily lives.
So, back to the scientist. She was asked to give a presentation at last week’s Spaceweather Enterprise Forum in Washington, D.C. She came to me for advice on how to identify some strong talking points for her presentation. So, we set to work on her statement. The science is very compelling, very straightforward: spaceweather can harm GPS systems. We need to know that and construct backup systems as well as harden the systems we have. Otherwise a strong solar burst could knock out more than just communications. I asked her for some examples of what GPS effects are in our daily lives. She mentioned a few, including one I hadn’t thought about: financial transactions. Bank transfers depend on accurate timing from GPS. So, I said to her that this was a point that would grab people right in the wallet. To me it was a point that would grab the attention of bottom-liners in business as well as government. So, I suggested that she make that one of her talking points.
We quickly came up with a few more talking points, such as how we can’t predict when large solar outbursts are going to take place. We were totally surprised by one last December that partially shut down GPS systems for (as she put it) tens of minutes. That’s a long time in communications and financial circles.
We honed her statement down and off she went to the meeting. And, lo and behold, her statements got picked up by nearly every news agency in attendance. Even though she was the last speaker on the podium, she got maximum “sound bite” out of a simple truth: space weather can and does affect things on this planet. (If you’re interested in what she had to say, go here and click on the link for Anthea Coster of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. Heck, listen to all of them!)
It’s a lot of fun being a space writer and doing what I do. Sometimes it gets me in on a story before it hits the news!
April 3, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Leave a Comment
The universe is huge. It’s bigger than we can imagine. We can model it, but unless we figure out a way to travel across huge gulfs of space, I don’t think we can ever truly get a complete feeling for how huge it is. But, we CAN measure it. And we have, using various wavelengths of light from the depths of space to do it. The multiwavelength universe tells us what’s out there, how far away it is, but also where WE are.
So, what are the measurements? Let’s start with your every day distances. From your face to the computer screen is somewhere around a third to a half of a meter (9-14 inches for those who use the English system of units). What’s the distance to the nearest park? A few hundred meters? A kilometer? Several kilometers? The distance around the world is roughly 40,000 kilometers. The distance from Earth to the Moon is 384,403 kilometers. To travel from Earth to the nearest star is a distance of 4.1 light-years. (Light travels 1,079,252,848.8 kilometers per hour, do the math!) The distance from our planet to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy is 26,000 light-years; the nearest galaxies are at least 163,000 light-years away. The most distant phenomenon ever measured lies some 13.7 BILLION light-years away. That 13.7 billion is, essentially, the limit of how far we can see. Beyond that is—what? The froth stirred up by the Big Bang.
Considering that most of us human types are no more than a couple of meters or so tall, you can see that on the scale of the universe, we’re pretty small. Our brains aren’t more than a dozen or so centimeters across, but we’ve managed to figure out distances in the cosmos.
If you’re a person who enjoys a visual explanation of distances and scales, check out the Universcale. It’s a fascinating animation of distances and scales in the cosmos. From the tiniest bits of cosmic matter seen by the electron microscope to the scales at which our greatest telescopes offer, you can explore the size of the cosmos in all its variety.
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Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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