8 Ways to Improve the Academic System for Science and Scientists

I’ve enjoyed most of my time working in academic science in the U.S. and Germany as a graduate student, a postdoctoral researcher, a research scientist and a lecturer. I’ve benefited from supportive mentors, talented colleagues and wonderful friends. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in terms of research, teaching, political advocacy and public outreach. Based on my experience and on anecdotal evidence, the system works well in some ways but is flawed in many others, especially involve the job market and career advancement.

Reflecting on the past fifteen years, here are my current thoughts on problems with the system and ways it could be improved, with a focus on the U.S. and on the physical sciences, though the social sciences and life sciences face similar problems.

1. Let’s be honest: the academic job market is horrible. It was already pretty bad before the recession, and it is worse now. Many scientists move from institution to institution, working on many postdocs, fellowships, and other short-term jobs while seeking permanent positions or more secure funding, but these turn out to be increasingly elusive and competitive. (I worked at three positions over nine years since earning my Ph.D.) I’ve seen some tenure-track faculty positions receive well over 400 applications—I don’t envy the hiring committees there—and I’ve seen some grant proposal success rates drop well below 10%.

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D's are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D’s are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

This system causes people a lot of stress; from a societal perspective, in this situation, how well can people work under such pressure and job insecurity, and how much can they accomplish when they must perennially focus on job applications and grant proposals rather than on the things that drew them to their profession? If the scientific community wants to attract the best scientists, then shouldn’t we strive to make their jobs more desirable than they are now, with better pay and security? As Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote in the Pacific Standard, “unless the nation stops…’burning its intellectual capital’ by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote.” In much the same way, the inadequate job prospects of adjunct faculty renders the possibility of drawing the best teachers and retaining them similarly small.

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

People have been diagnosing these problems for years, but no clear solutions have emerged. In my opinion, the job market situation could be gradually ameliorated if many institutions simultaneously sought to improve it. In particular, I think scientists should have longer-term postdoctoral positions, such as five years rather than one, two or three. I also think faculty should hire fewer graduate students, such as one or two at a time rather than, say, five of them, regardless of how much funding they happen to have at the time.

I also think that colleges, universities, and national labs should allocate funding for more staff positions, though of course that funding has to come from somewhere, and tuition and student debt are already too high. On the other hand, some people argue that university administrations have ballooned too much over the past few decades; others argue that some universities spend too much money on their sports programs. In addition, federal funding for “basic research” (as opposed to applied research) in science should be increased, as such grants often supplement university funding.

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for "sequestration." (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for “sequestration.” (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

2. We can considerably improve the graduate student experience as well. Many university departments and professional societies now give more information about academic career prospects to students than before, and it should be their official policy to do so. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to explore as many of their interests as possible, not just those focused on their narrow field of research. If they want to learn to teach well, or learn about computer programming, software, statistics, policy-making, or the history or philosophy or sociology of their science, or if they want to investigate interdisciplinary connections, or if they want to develop other skills, they should have the time and space to do that. Universities have many excellent resources, and students should have the opportunity to utilize them.

We know that only a fraction of graduate students will continue in academia, and the best scientists will be well-rounded and have a wide range of experience; if they move on to something else, they should be prepared and have the tools and expertise they need.

3. The scientific community can take this an important step further by acknowledging the many roles and variety of activities scientists engage in in addition to research: teaching courses, participating in outreach programs, advancing efforts to improve diversity, becoming involved in political advocacy, developing software and instrumentation that don’t necessarily result in publications, etc. Many scientists agree that we do not sufficiently value these kinds of activities even though they are necessary for the vitality and sustainability of the scientific enterprise itself. For example, in a new paper submitted to the Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal, the authors find that many astronomers think a larger fraction of their grant-funded work (up to 10%) should be allocated to education and public outreach (EPO). EPO are included among the “broader impacts” of National Science Foundation grants, but much more can be done in this regard. All of these activities should be explicitly recognized by the relevant federal agencies during the evaluation of grant proposals and by departmental hiring committees when assessing candidates for jobs and promotions.

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Therefore, a corollary follows: if the community appreciates a wider scope of activities as important components of a scientist’s job, then it is not necessary to relentlessly pursue published research papers all of the time. Perhaps this could alleviate the “publish or perish” problem, in which some scientists rush the publication of insufficiently vetted results or make provocative claims that go far beyond what their analysis actually shows. That is, endeavoring for a more open-minded view of scientists’ work could improve the quality and reliability of scientific research.

In practice, how would this be done? Scientists could organize more conferences and meetings specifically devoted to education research, outreach programs, policy developments, etc., and the proceedings should be published online. Another way a scientist’s peers could be aware of the wider scope of her non-research work would be to have different levels of publication involving them, from informal social media and blog posts to possibly peer-reviewed statements and articles that could be posted on online archives or wiki pages. For example, if she participated in an outreach project with local high school students or in Congressional visit days, she could speak or write about the experience and about what worked well with the program and then publish that presentation or statement.

Furthermore, since research projects can take years and many grueling steps to complete, often by graduate students toiling away in their offices and labs, why not reduce the pressure and recognize the interim work at intermediate stages? Some people are considering publishing a wider scope of research-related work, even including the initial idea phase. A new open-access journal, Research Ideas and Outcomes, aims to do just that. I’m not sure whether it will work, but it’s worth trying, and I hope that scientists will be honorable and cooperative and avoid scooping each other’s ideas.

On that note, as some of you know, I will make it official that I am leaving academic science. (In my next post, I will write about what I am shifting my career toward.) As a result, I will be unable to complete many of my scientific project ideas and papers, and for the few astrophysicist readers of this blog, I will not be annoyed if you run with them (but please give me proper credit). My next four projects probably would have been the following: modeling galaxy catalogs including realistic dynamics within galaxy groups and clusters within dark matter clumps of the “cosmic web”; assessing observational and theoretical problems in the relation between galaxy stellar mass and dark matter halo mass; modeling the mass-morphology relation of galaxies using constraints I previously obtained with the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project; and modeling and analyzing the star formation rate dependence of the spatial distribution of galaxies in the distant cosmic past. I am happy to give more details about any of these ideas.

4. We should also address the problem of academic status inequality. If a person makes it to an elite university or has the opportunity to work with a big-name faculty member or manages to win a prestigious award, grant or fellowship, that is an excellent achievement of which they should be proud. Nevertheless, such a person is essentially endorsed by the establishment and is much more likely to be considered part of an in-crowd, with everyone else struggling in the periphery. In-crowd scientists then often have an easier time obtaining future opportunities, and like an academic capitalism, wealth and capital flow toward this in-crowd at the expense of the periphery scientists. On the one hand, the in-crowd scientists have accomplished something and the community should encourage them to continue their work. On the other hand, scientists are busy people, but they can also be lazy; it’s too easy to give an award to someone who as already received one or to hire someone from another elite institution rather than to assess the merits of the many people with whom they may be less familiar.

According to a recent study in Science Advances, the top ten elite universities produce three times as many future professors as the next ten in the rankings. However, the authors find plenty of evidence that this system does not resemble a meritocracy; in addition, female graduates slip 15% further down the academic hierarchy than men from the same institutions. According to a Slate piece by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset, a co-author of the paper, the findings suggest that upward career mobility in the world of professors is mostly a myth. Many scientists coming from academic outsiders—not from the elite universities—have made important discoveries in the past, but their peers only slowly noticed them. “Thanks to the restrictive nature of the academic system there may be many more innovations that are languishing in obscurity, and they will continue to do so until our universities find a way to apply the principles of diversity they espouse in building student bodies to their hiring practices as well.”

5. As I’ve written before, much more work can be done to improve gender, race, class and other forms of diversity when hiring students, postdocs and faculty and promoting them at universities. Furthermore, when organizing conferences, workshops, meetings and speaker series, diverse committees should explicitly take these principles into consideration. Even the most thorough and attentive committees must also beware of “unconscious bias,” which affects everyone but can be reduced.

6. In a related point, colleges and universities can implement many family-friendly (or more generally, life-friendly) policies to improve and promote work-life balance of academic workers. These include flexible schedules, parental leave, tenure-clock extensions and many others. However, this is not sufficient: scientists who happen to lack the benefits and privileges of white, male, straight people from elite universities seem to have to work that much harder to have a chance of drawing the attention of hiring committees. One should not need to work 100 hours a week to be a successful scientist. Shouldn’t we want more balanced scientists with lives and interests beyond their narrow research field? This means that committees should recognize that sometimes excellent scientists may have fewer yet very high-quality accomplishments and may be under the radar waiting to be “discovered.”

7. The scientific community would also benefit from more opportunities for videoconferencing, in which people remotely present talks and field questions about them. As I’ve written for the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee, our biggest source of carbon emissions comes from frequent travel, and we should try to reduce our carbon “footprint.” Moreover, people at small colleges with small travel budgets and people with families who have a harder time traveling would appreciate this, as it would level the playing field a bit. Of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, but people continue to improve video tools with Skype, Google and many others, which could be utilized much more extensively.

8. Finally, I argue that everyone would benefit from more and better interactions between scientists, public affairs representatives and government affairs officials at universities. Such interactions would help scientists to present their accomplishments to a wider community, help universities to publicize their scientists’ work, and help political officials to understand the important science being done in their districts, often benefiting from federal and state investment.

These are my current thoughts, and I hope they spark discussions and debates.

Reproducibility in Science: Study Finds Psychology Experiments Fail Replication Test

Scientists toiling away in their laboratories, observatories and offices don’t just fabricate data, plagiarize other research, or make up questionable conclusions when publishing their work. Participating in any of these dishonest activities would be like violating a scientific Hippocratic oath. So why do many scientific studies and papers turn out to be unreliable or flawed?

(Credit: Shutterstock/Lightspring)

(Credit: Shutterstock/Lightspring)

In a massive analysis of 100 recently published psychology papers with different research designs and authors, University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek and his colleagues find that more than half of them fail replication tests. Only 39% of the psychology experiments could be replicated unambiguously, while those claiming surprising effects or effects that were challenging to replicate were less reproducible. They published their results in the new issue of Science.

Nosek began crowdsourcing the Reproducibility Project in 2012, when he reached out to nearly 300 members of the psychology community. Scientists lead and work on many projects simultaneously for which they receive credit when publishing their own papers, so it takes some sacrifice to take part: the replication paper lists the authors of the Open Science Collaboration alphabetically, rather than in order of their contributions to it, and working with so many people presents logistical difficulties. Nevertheless, considering the importance of scientific integrity and investigations of the reliability of analyses and results, such an undertaking is worthwhile to the community. (In the past, I have participated in similarly large collaboration projects such as this, which I too believe have benefited the astrophysical community.)

The researchers evaluated five complementary indicators of reproducibility using significance and p-values, effect sizes, subjective assessments of replication teams and meta-analyses of effect sizes. Although a failure to reproduce does not necessarily mean that the original report was incorrect, they state that such “replications suggest that more investigation is needed to establish the validity of the original findings.” This is diplomatic scientist-speak for: “people have reason to doubt the results.” In the end, the scientists in this study find that in the majority of cases, the p-values are higher (making the results less significant or statistically insignificant) and the effect size is smaller or even goes in the opposite direction of the claimed trend!

Effects claimed in the majority of studies cannot be reproduced. Figure shows density plots of original and replication p-values and effect sizes (correlation coefficients).

Effects claimed in the majority of studies cannot be reproduced. Figure shows density plots of original and replication p-values and effect sizes (correlation coefficients).

Note that this meta-analysis has a few limitations and shortcomings. Some studies or analysis methods that are difficult to replicate involve research that may be pushing the limits or testing very new or little studied questions, and if scientists only asked easy questions or questions to which they already knew the answer, then the research would not be particularly useful to the advancement of science. In addition, I could find no comment in the paper about situations in which the scientists face the prospect of replicating their own or competitors’ previous papers; presumably they avoided potential conflicts of interest.

These contentious conclusions could shake up the social sciences and subject more papers and experiments to scrutiny. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; according to Oxford psychologist Dorothy Bishop in the Guardian, it could be “the starting point for the revitalization and improvement of science.”

In any case, scientists must acknowledge the publication of so many questionable results. Since scientists generally strive for honesty, integrity and transparency, and cases of outright fraud are extremely rare, we must investigate the causes of these problems. As pointed out by Ed Yong in the Atlantic, like many sciences, “psychology suffers from publication bias, where journals tend to only publish positive results (that is, those that confirm the researchers’ hypothesis), and negative results are left to linger in file drawers.” In addition, some social scientists have published what first appear to be startling discoveries but turn out to be cases of “p-hacking…attempts to torture positive results out of ambiguous data.”

Unfortunately, this could also provide more fuel for critics of science, who already seem to have enough ammunition judging by overblown headlines pointing to increasing numbers of scientists retracting papers, often due to misconduct, such as plagiarism and image manipulation. In spite of this trend, as Christie Aschwanden argues in a FiveThirtyEight piece, science isn’t broken! Scientists should be cautious about unreliable statistical tools though, and p-values fall into that category. The psychology paper meta-analysis shows that p<0.05 tests are too easy to pass, but scientists knew that already, as the Basic and Applied Social Psychology journal banned p-values earlier this year.

Furthermore, larger trends may be driving the publication of such problematic science papers. Increasing competition between scientists for high-status jobs, federal grants, and speaking opportunities at high-profile conferences pressure scientists to publish more and to publish provocative results in major journals. To quote the Open Science Collaboration’s paper, “the incentives for individual scientists prioritize novelty over replication.” Furthermore, overextended peer reviewers and editors often lack the time to properly vet and examine submitted manuscripts, making it more likely that problematic papers might slip through and carry much more weight upon publication. At that point, it can take a while to refute an influential published paper or reduce its impact on the field.

Source: American Society for Microbiology, Nature

Source: American Society for Microbiology, Nature

When I worked as an astrophysics researcher, I carefully reviewed numerous papers for many different journals and considered that work an important part of my job. Perhaps utilizing multiple reviewers per manuscript and paying reviewers for their time may improve that situation. In any case, most scientists recognize that though peer review plays an important role in the process, it is no panacea.

I know that I am proud of all of my research papers, but at times I wished to have more time for additional or more comprehensive analysis in order to be more thorough and certain about some results. This can be prohibitively time-consuming for any scientist—theorists, observers and experimentalists alike—but scientists draw a line at different places when deciding whether or when to publish research. I also feel that sometimes I have been too conservative in the presentation of my conclusions, while some scientists make claims that go far beyond the limited implications of uncertain results.

Some scientists jump on opportunities to publish the most provocative results they can find, and science journalists and editors love a great headline, but we should express skepticism when people announce unconvincing or improbable findings, as many of them turn out to be wrong. (Remember when Opera physicists thought that neutrinos could travel faster than light?)

When conducting research and writing and reviewing papers, scientists should aim for as much transparency and openness as possible. The Open Science Framework demonstrates how such research could be done, where the data are accessible to everyone and individual scientist’s contributions can be tracked. With such a “GitHub-like version control system, it’s clear exactly who takes responsibility for what part of a research project, and when—helping resolve problems of ownership and first publication,” writes Katie Palmer in Wired. As Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of Science, says, “authors and journal editors should be wary of publishing marginally significant results, as those are the ones that are less likely to reproduce.”

If some newly published paper is going to attract the attention of the scientific community and news media, then it must be sufficiently interesting, novel or even contentious, so scientists and journalists must work harder to strike that balance. We should also remember that, for better or worse, science rarely yields clear answers; it usually leads to more questions.

All Aboard to the American Astronomical Society Meeting!

I’m on a train adventure, going through California, Oregon, and Washington to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle. This post is a modified version of one I wrote for the AAS
Sustainability Committee.

For those of you astronomers and journalists at the meeting, you’re welcome to join us for our Special Session next Wednesday (7th January) at 12:30-14:00 in Room 4C-3. We’ll be starting the new year with ideas and plans for addressing climate change issues in class and with the media.

We encourage anyone who is interested in the Sustainability Committee to contact us and get involved. We will post resources on this website for teaching and discussing climate change with journalists.

It’s important for astronomers to try to make observatories, telescopes, university department buildings, and computer centers as energy efficient as possible, but our largest environmental impact and carbon footprint comes from airplane flights to meetings, conferences, workshops, etc. According to a New York Times article, air travel emissions account for about five percent of global warming, and that fraction is projected to rise significantly as the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency.

It would help this situation to develop better resources and technologies for videoconferencing and remote observing, and these are areas where we should continue to make improvements. In addition, long-distance travel can be difficult for some people, such as for those with families and those in relatively remote locations, and videoconferencing and webcasts can make conferences more accessible to more people.

Nonetheless, long-distance travel is sometimes necessary, including for early-career scientists who need to advertise their work and network at conferences. I joined the Sustainability Committee in 2014, and one thing I am trying to do and trying to encourage others to do is to take more trains. In the US, long-distance trains can be very useful depending on where one wants to travel. They are not always the fastest mode of transportation, but they are comfortable, convenient, have great views, and usually have wireless access if you need to work. And importantly, they save energy.

I work at the University of California, San Diego, and I’m taking the train up the Pacific coast to Seattle via Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, which we just passed, the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Portland. (It makes me think of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”) I’m traveling nearly 1500 miles (2400 km)—nearly the entire distance from the southern to northern border of the US. As I wrote in a blog post last summer, Amtrak trains expend about 1,600 BTUs of energy per passenger per mile, while planes use 2,500 and cars use 3,900. Trains are much more energy efficient than planes, cars, and buses, and by not flying to Seattle, I’m saving tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This is just a start, but I am trying to view flying as a luxury or necessary evil that I will avoid and reduce when possible.

In any case, I’m excited to be part of the new and improved Sustainability Committee, and if you’re interested, join us at the AAS meeting! More importantly, make a resolution in 2015 to reduce your and your institution’s carbon footprint.

Conference on Nearby Galaxies in Memory of Charles Engelbracht

I just returned from a small conference on “Observations of Dust in Nearby Galaxies” at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It honored Chad Engelbracht, an influential astronomer in the field who rather suddenly passed away in January, before his 44th birthday.


It was great to be back in Tucson! This was my first visit since I moved away in 2012. I worked as a postdoc at the University of Arizona—an internationally renowned center of theoretical, observational, and instrumental astronomy—for three years, and I spent much of that time working with Chad on research projects with the Key Insights on Nearby Galaxies: a Far-Infrared Survey with Herschel (KINGFISH) and Herschel Inventory of The Agents of Galaxy Evolution (HERITAGE) surveys. Chad has written numerous publications on extragalactic infrared astronomy, especially on the distributions of dust, stars, and gas within galaxies in the “local universe.” He was also the MIPS Instrument Scientist for the Spitzer telescope, which enabled a lot of excellent research by others.

As you may know, I’m trained in theoretical astrophysics, and my expertise is in the large-scale structure of the universe, dark matter, galaxy formation, and cosmology, and when I’ve used data, they’ve usually been in optical wavelengths. Needless to say, I had a steep learning curve to navigate in order to work on my infrared research, and Chad helped me up it. Chad was my friend and colleague, and I really enjoyed working with him. He was patient with me, had a great sense of humor, gave me insightful suggestions and feedback, and helped me produce interesting results. (The two main papers we wrote together are here and here.) If I continue with my academic career, he would be one of my role models.

Chad also liked beer, so we definitely got along well. While I worked at Steward Observatory, he and I and others in the “infrared wing” frequently went to 1702 for pizza and beer for lunch. The night before the conference, many of his old friends and I went back to 1702 for a few pints. Chad also liked to play the computer game Quake, where he was known as “Chuckles the clown.” During her opening remarks at the conference, Joannah Hinz said, “Since no one is admitting to have played Quake, it seems that Chad must have been playing it by himself!” Well, I’ll admit that Chad didn’t have to twist my arm much to convince me to play it when I was at Arizona, and when I’d gotten a new computer, his first task was to make sure that Quake ran on it well. The game made for a good afternoon break and a funny way to interact with people. (If you’re wondering, I played as The Tick.)

Many of Chad’s colleagues and collaborators attended and spoke at the conference, including Rob Kennicutt, Margaret Meixner, Bruce Draine, Maud Galametz, and Dennis Zaritsky. I was moved by all of the personal and astronomical tributes to Chad throughout the conference. It’s clear that he influenced, inspired, and was respected by many people. His legacy lives on.

Chad is survived by his parents and siblings, his wife Sue Dubuque, their three children (Max, Sydney, and Henry), and his numerous friends. He is missed.

Rosetta and the Time-scale of Science

Over the past couple weeks, you have surely seen Rosetta and its dusty comet all over the internet, in the news, or on Twitter and other social media sites. It has definitely captured the public imagination. But where did Rosetta come from? How did scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) manage to accomplish the feat of putting a lander on the surface of a comet hurtling through space? The answer: through a lot of hard work by many people and investment of many resources for many years.

#CometLanding may have been the meme of the week, but it was decades in the making. After Halley’s Comet (1P/Halley) flew by the Earth and was studied by ESA’s Giotto probe, scientists there and at NASA realized that more ambitious missions would be necessary to obtain more detailed information about comets, which contain water and organic materials and could have influenced the origin of life on Earth. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the Rosetta mission in November 1993, about 21 years ago. Design and construction took teams of scientists a decade to complete, and then they launched the €1.3 billion flagship spacecraft in 2005 (which was a few months before NASA’s Deep Impact mission sent a probe to collide with a different comet). Following four gravity assists, slingshotting once by Mars and three times by Earth, Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko earlier this year. After orbiting for two months, Rosetta was in a position and trajectory to eject Philae, which successfully landed on the comet and made history on 12th November. (See my recent post for more.)

To give another example, for my astrophysics research, I have frequently used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an optical telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The SDSS was first planned in the 1980s, and data collection finally began in 2000. Some have
described the SDSS as one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy, as it has observed millions of galaxies and quasars, transforming many fields of research, including work on cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe. It also witnessed the rise of Galaxy Zoo, which with more than 250,000 active “citizen scientists,” has become perhaps the greatest mass participation project ever conceived. Now we prepare for the successors to the SDSS, including ESA’s Euclid mission and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which are expected to have “first light” in the 2020s.

Scientific research operates on a long time-scale, sometimes longer than the careers of scientists themselves. Scientists make mistakes sometimes, and some projects, large and small, may fail or produce inaccurate results. At times, it may take awhile for scientists to abandon a theory or interpretation insufficiently supported by evidence, and it can be difficult to determine which investigations to pursue that could yield new and fruitful research. Nevertheless, over many years the “self-correcting” nature of the scientific enterprise tends to prevail.

In addition, while the US Congress makes decisions about federal budgets every fiscal year, American scientists depend on predictable stable funding over longer periods in order to successfully complete their research programs. Moreover, school and university students depend on funding and resources for their education. Quality scientific education helps people to become scientifically literate and critical thinkers; as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “center line of science literacy…is how you think.” Plus, some students will be inspired by Rosetta and other achievements to pursue careers in science, and we should give them every opportunity to do so.

Events can change rapidly in the 24-hour news cycle, but science and scientists work over years to produce big results like the comet landing. Future missions and ambitious projects for the next few decades are being planned now and need continued support. And to ensure more scientific advancements after that, we need to keep investing in the education of our students—the next generation of scientists.

[Note that this op-ed-like piece is adapted from an assignment I wrote for a science writing class with Lynne Friedmann at UC San Diego.]

Comet Update! Rosetta’s Philae landed, but not as planned

Now here’s what you’ve been waiting for! You really need more comet, like Christopher Walken/Bruce Dickinson needs more cowbell, so here you go…

In a blog post few months ago, I told you about the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta mission. Nine years after its launch and after four gravity assists, Rosetta reached the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and began to orbit it. On 11th November, Rosetta maneuvered its position and trajectory to eject its washing machine-sized lander, Philae, which sallied forth and landed on the comet the next day, and MADE HISTORY! (Wired‘s apt headline, “Holy Shit We Landed a Spacecraft on a Comet,” beat The Onion, which is known for that sort of thing.) Its landing was confirmed at ESA’s Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany at 17:03 CET that day.


Above you can see Philae on its fateful journey, and below you can see its first image of the comet, both courtesy of ESA. The landing happened to take place while friends of mine were at a Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, Arizona, and we and others discussed the Philae landing at Friday’s Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today. And if you’re interested in more information than what I’ve written here, then check out the ESA Rosetta blog and posts by Emily Lakdawalla, Matthew Francis, and Phil Plait.


From what we can tell, Philae did initially touch down in its predicted landing ellipse (its planned landing zone) but its harpoons—which were supposed to latch onto the surface—failed to fire, and it bounced! Considering how small the comet is and how weak its gravitational force (about 100,000 weaker than on the Earth), this could have been the end as the lander could then have floated away, never to be seen again. However, after nearly two hours, it landed again…and bounced again, and a few minutes later finally settled on the surface and dug in its ice screws, about 1 km from its intended landing spot on a comet 4 km in diameter. (This would be like trying to land a plane in Honolulu and ending up on another island—it’s unfortunate but at least you didn’t drown.)


At first, it wasn’t clear exactly where Philae actually was; it could have dropped into a crater where it would be nearly impossible to find. But then based on images from the OSIRIS camera and NavCam (navigational camera) on Rosetta, ESA scientists were finally able to locate it a couple days ago. The mosaicked images above came from the OSIRIS Team, and the NavCam image below as annotated by Emily Lakdawalla, to give the larger-scale context. After its last bounce, Philae rotated and headed “east”, finally becoming settled among dust-covered ice at the bottom of a shadowed cliff. It’s not an ideal position but at least it’s not totally precarious. (They considered securing the position with the harpoons, but the momentum from firing them could push the lander back up into space, which would be “highly embarrassing” according to Stephan Ulamec, head of the lander team.)


But the cliff situation is a problem. Philae’s battery had a little more than two days of juice in it, and once that ran out, it would be dependent on its solar panels. However, Philae’s current position only receives about 1.5 hours of light per 12-hour rotation of the comet, much less than hoped. Philae did attempt to run some of its experiments and activities during the time allotted, the battery ran late on Friday. This was @Philae2014’s last tweet: “My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz #CometLanding”

Before Philae dreamt of electric sheep, it managed to collect some data using instruments on board. (See this Nature news article.) For example, Philae deployed its drilling system (SD2) as planned, in order to deliver samples to the COSAC and Ptolemy instruments, which probe organic molecules and water (and which I described in my previous Rosetta post). But ESA scientists don’t know how much material SD2 actually delivered to the lander; if the ground is very dense, it’s possible that since Philae isn’t totally anchored, it could have moved the lander rather than drilling into the surface. We do know for sure that some instruments operated successfully, such as the downward-looking ROLIS camera and ROMAP, the magnetic field mapping system.

In any case, scientists have obtained some data already while other data stuck on the snoozing lander will be retrieved later. In the meantime, Rosetta is keeping busy and continues to take observations. Philae has already been a success, and who knowsmaybe it will “wake up” when its solar panels absorb enough sunlight to recharge the batteries.

[Note that the NavCam images we’ve seen so far are pretty good, but I have heard that Rosetta scientists have much better resolution color images that are embargoed and won’t be released for six months. I haven’t confirmed this fact yet, so if you have more up-to-date info, please let me know.]

Finally, I’ll end with some comments about what some people are referring to as #shirtstorm or #shirtgate. (For more info, see this Guardian article and this blog post and this one.) On the day of the worldwide live-stream broadcast last week, Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist, wore a shirt covered with scantily clad women. I get the impression that Taylor is a cool guy and wants to get away from the scientist stereotypes people have, but this is completely inappropriate. (And he’s worn this shirt to work before. Apparently none of his colleagues told him to leave it at home.) But it’s not just the shirt; during the middle of his broadcast, Taylor referred to Rosetta as the “sexiest” mission. “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”


We debated many aspects of this on astronomers’ official and unofficial social media, and for the most part, our community is very unhappy about this. You may say that we should focus on the science, and who cares about what this scientist wears or says when he’s excited about his mission’s success. But we have been working really hard to increase diversity in STEM fields and to achieve gender equality in science. Many aspects to working in the current scientific establishment are not particularly welcoming to women, and Matt Taylor’s shirt and poor choice of words are part of the problem. A few days later, Taylor made a heartfelt apology. As far as I know, ESA itself has not issued an official apology yet. The American Astronomical Society made a statement today (Wednesday) that “We wish to express our support for members of the community who rightly brought this issue to the fore, and we condemn the unreasonable attacks they experienced as a result, which caused deep distress in our community. We do appreciate the scientist’s sincere and unqualified apology.”

In any case, our focus is on the science and on this amazing scientific achievement. But Science is for everyone.

Rise of the Giant Telescopes

The biggest telescope ever constructed, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), officially broke ground on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i on Tuesday. Building on technology used for the Keck telescopes, the TMT’s primary mirror will be segmented combining 492 hexagonal reflectors that will be honeycombed together, and it will have an effective diameter of 30 meters, as you’ve probably guessed. (Astrophysicists come up with very descriptive names for their telescopes and simulations.) 30 meters is really really big—about a third the length of an American football field and nearly the size of a baseball diamond’s infield. When it’s built it will look something like this:


(If you’re interested, here’s a shameless plug: we discussed the TMT’s groundbreaking on the Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today yesterday, and you can see the video on YouTube.)

The groundbreaking and blessing ceremony, which included George Takei hosting a live webcast, didn’t go quite as planned. It was disrupted by a peaceful protest of several dozen people who oppose the telescope’s construction. The protesters chanted and debated with attendees and held signs with “Aloha ‘Aina” (which means ‘love of the land’) and using TMT to spell out “Too Many Telescopes.” There has been a history of tension over what native Hawaiians say is sacred ground in need of protection and is also one of the best places on Earth to place telescopes. This is a longstanding issue, and the tension between them back in 2001 was reported in this LA Times article. According to Garth Illingworth, co-chair of the Science Advisory Committee, “It was an uncomfortable situation for those directly involved, but the way in which the interactions with the protesters was handled, with considerable effort to show respect and to deal with the situation with dignity, reflected credit on all concerned.” In any case, construction will continue as planned.


The TMT’s science case includes observing distant galaxies and the large-scale structure of the early universe, and will enable new research on supermassive black holes, and star and planet formation. The TMT is led by researchers at Caltech and University of California (where I work), and Canada, Japan, China, India. Its optical to near-infrared images will be deeper and sharper than anything else available, with spatial resolution twelve times that of the Hubble Space Telescope and eight times the light-gathering area of any other optical telescope. If it’s completed on schedule, it will have “first light” in 2022 and could be the first of the next generation of huge ground-based telescopes. The others are the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT, led by the European Southern Observatory) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT, led by the Carnegie Observatories and other institutions), which will be located in northern Chile.

Every ten years, astronomers and astrophysicists prioritize small-, medium-, and large-scale ground-based and space-based missions, with the aim of advising the federal government’s investment, such as funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. The most recent decadal survey, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences is available online (“New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics“). For the large-scale ground-based telescopes, the NSF will be providing funding for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (which I’ve written about here before) and the TMT. There had been debates about funding either the TMT or the GMT, but not both, though a couple years ago GMT scientists opted out of federal funding (see this Science article). NASA is focusing on space-based missions such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will be launched later this decade.

Astrophysicists Gather in Aspen to Study the Galaxy-Dark Matter Connection

I just returned from a summer workshop at the Aspen Center for Physics, and I enjoyed it quite a bit! The official title of our workshop is “The Galaxy-Halo Connection Across Cosmic Time.” It was organized by Risa Wechsler (Stanford) and Frank van den Bosch (Yale) and others who unfortunately weren’t able to attend (Andreas Berlind, Jeremy Tinker, and Andrew Zentner). The workshop itself was very well attended by researchers and faculty from a geographically diverse range of institutions, but since it was relatively late in the summer, a few people couldn’t come because of teaching duties.

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Since I grew up in Colorado, I have to add that Aspen is fine and I understand why it’s popular, but there are many beautiful mountain towns in the Colorado Rockies. Visitors and businesses should spread the love to other places too, like Glenwood Springs, Durango, Leadville, Estes Park, etc… In any case, when we had time off, it was fun to go hiking and biking in the area. For example, I took the following photo after hiking to the top of Electric Peak (elev. 13635 ft., 4155 m), and lower down I’ve included photos of Lost Man Lake (near the continental divide) and the iconic Maroon Bells.

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The Aspen Center for Physics (ACP) is a great place for working and collaborating with colleagues. As they say on their website, “Set in a friendly, small town of inspiring landscapes, the Center is conducive to deep thinking with few distractions, rules or demands.” As usual, we had a very flexible schedule that allowed for plenty of conversations and discussions outdoors or in our temporary offices. Weather permitting, we had lunch and some meetings outside, and we had many social events too, including lemonade and cookies on Mondays and weekly barbecues. It’s also family-friendly, and many physicists brought their spouses and kids to Aspen too. I’ve attended one ACP summer workshop on a similar theme (“Modeling Galaxy Clustering”) in June 2007, and it too was both fun and productive. Note that the ACP workshop is very different than the Madrid workshop I attended earlier this summer, which had specific goals we were working toward (and I’ll give an update about it later).

This year’s Aspen workshop connected important research on the large-scale structure of the universe, the physics of dark matter halo assembly, the formation and evolution of galaxies, and cosmology. We had informal discussions about the masses and boundaries of dark matter haloes in simulations, ways to quantify the abundances and statistics of galaxies we observe with telescopes and surveys, and how to construct improved models that accurately associate particular classes of galaxies with particular regions of the “cosmic web”—see this Bolshoi simulation image, for example, and the following slice from a galaxy catalog of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey:


While some of these issues have plagued us for years and remain unresolved, there are some subtle issues that have cropped up more recently. We (including me) have successfully modeled the spatial distribution of galaxies in the “local” universe, but now we are trying to distinguish between seemingly inconsistent but similarly successful models. For example, we know that the distribution of dark matter haloes in numerical simulations depends on the mass of the haloes—bigger and more massive systems tend to form in denser environments—as well as on their assembly history (such as their formation time), but these correlations can be quantified in different ways and it’s not clear whether there is a preferred way to associate galaxies with haloes as a function of these properties. For the galaxies themselves, we want to understand why some of them have particular brightnesses, colors, masses, gas contents, star formation rates, and structures and whether they can be explained with particular kinds of dark matter halo models.


The main purpose of these workshops is to facilitate collaborations and inspire new ideas about (astro)physical issues, and it looks like we accomplished that. The previous workshop I attended helped me to finish a paper on analyzing the observed spatial distribution of red and blue galaxies with dark matter halo models (arXiv:0805.0310), and I’m sure that my current projects are already benefiting from this summer’s workshop. We seem to be gradually learning more about the relations between galaxy formation and dark matter, and my colleagues and I will have new questions to ask the next time we return to the Rockies.

Finally, here are those Maroon Bells you’ve been waiting for:


Exploring the “Multiverse” and the Origin of Life

After two weeks away from the blog, I’m back! At the end of July, I attended an interesting event at UC San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. (Yes, that’s what it’s called!) The event was a panel discussion entitled, “How Big is the World?: Exploring the Multiverse in Modern Astrophysics, Cosmology, and Beyond” (and you can watch the event here). The three speakers included Andrew Friedman (postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at MIT), Brian Keating (professor of physics in my department at UCSD), and David Brin (Hugo & Nebula Award Winning Author).

The Clarke Center seems to be a unique place with an ambitious program that incorporates a variety of “transdisciplinary” activities. This event fits with their nebulous theme, and the talks and discussions frequently overlapped between science, philosophy of science, and science fiction. I think science and philosophy of science go well together especially when we’re exploring the edges of scientific knowledge, including cosmological astrophysics and the origins of human life. (See my previous post and this recent article on Salon.) Too often astrophysicists, myself included, become very specialized and neglect the “big questions.” Nonetheless, I think we should be careful when we traverse the border between science and science fiction: while it’s exciting to connect them and useful for public outreach, we should mind the gap.

Andrew Friedman focused on the “multiverse”. What is a multiverse, you ask? I’m not entirely clear on it myself, but I’ll try to explain. In the first fraction of a second of the Big Bag, the universe appears to have gone through a phase of accelerated, exponential expansion (called “inflation”) driven by the vacuum energy of one or more quantum fields. The gravitational waves that were recently detected by BICEP2 (in which Brian Keating was involved) appear to support particular inflationary models in which once inflation starts, the process happens repeatedly and in multiple ways. In other words, there may be not one but many universes, including parallel universes—a popular topic in science fiction.


Inflationary theory solves some problems involving the initial conditions of the Big Bang cosmology, but I’m not so sure that we have—or can ever have—evidence clearly pointing to the existence of multiverses. In addition, in my opinion, Friedman stretched the concept of “universe” to try to argue for the multiverse. He spoke about the fact that there are parts of the universe that are completely inaccessible even if we could go the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean that the inaccessible regions are another universe. It’s fun to think about a “quantum divergence of worlds,” as David Brin referred to it, but quantum mechanics (with the standard Copenhagen interpretation; see this book by Notre Dame professor Jim Cushing) don’t imply a multiverse either: Schrödinger’s live cat and dead cat are not in separate universes. As far as I know, I’m not creating new universes every time I barely miss or catch the train.

The speakers did bring up some interesting questions though about the “anthropic principle” and “fine tuning.” The anthropic principle is a contentious topic that has attracted wide interest and criticism, and if you’re interested, read this review of the literature by Pittsburgh professor John Earman. The anthropic principle is the idea that the physical universe we observe must be compatible with conscious life. It’s a cosmic coincidence that the density of vacuum energy and matter are nearly equal and that the universe’s expansion rate is nearly equal to the critical rate which separates eternal expansion from recontraction, and if the universe were significantly different, it would be impossible to develop conscious life such as humans who can contemplate their own universe. (In the context of the multiverse, there may be numerous universes but only a tiny fraction of them could support life.) It’s important to study the various coincidences and (im)probabilities in physics and cosmology in our universe, but it’s not clear what these considerations explain.

David Brin spoke differently than the others, since he’s more a writer than a scientist, and his part of the discussion was always interesting. He frequently made interesting connections to fiction (such as a legitimate criticism of Walt Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer“) and he had a poetic way of speaking; when talking about the possibility of life beyond Earth, he said “If there are living creatures on Titan, they will be made of wax.” He also brought up the “Drake equation,” which is relevant in the context of the topics above. The Drake equation is a probabilistic expression for estimating the number of active, communicating civilizations in our galaxy. It involves a multiplication of many highly uncertain quantities (see this xkcd comic), but it’s nonetheless interesting to think about. The problem is that space is really big—”vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big,” according to Douglas Adams—so even if there are Vulcans or Klingons or dozens or millions of other civilizations out there, it would take a really really really long time to find them and attempt to communicate with them. We could send people from Earth in a long shuttle ride to visit another civilization, but there’s no guarantee that humanity will still be around when they try to call back. It’s unfortunate, but this is the universe we live in.

For Traveling Scientists: Praise for Trains

And now for something completely different! I’d like to make the case that we should take intra-city and inter-city trains more often. (I mean this especially for Americans, since trains are already more popular and more advanced in many other countries.) As some of you know, I like riding trains, and I even thought of writing an “ode to trains,” but though I enjoy poetry—which is virtually required of me as a half-Persian—I don’t think I write it particularly well. One of my first memories as a boy was riding a train in Colorado and sticking my head out the window, only to get a face full of smoke. I’m a fan of blues, folk, and jazz music too, and many musicians (such as Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez) have sung train songs. This post is also partly inspired by an interesting and entertaining article by Kevin Baker in the July 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine.

I’m motivated by the fact that many people, and especially scientists, frequently travel long distances. Many astronomers and astrophysicists travel to conferences, workshops, and meetings as well as to telescopes. Occasionally it’s possible to interact or participate in meetings by videoconferencing and to use telescopes with “remote observing,” but it’s often the case that travel can’t be avoided, and as I’ve written here before, it’s important for junior scientists to present their work and engage in networking in person to help to advance their careers. Although most telescopes and observatories are constructed to be environmentally friendly, it is long-distance travel that results in very large “carbon footprints.”

My carbon footprint has been particularly large this year, and I hope to do better next year. I plan to begin by considering taking a train from southern California to Seattle for the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in early January. Long-distance travel is also an issue being taken up by the AAS Sustainability Committee.


If you’re wondering, this trip would take most of a weekend, but it would offer nice views of the Pacific coast and the trains have free wireless internet too. It looks like the Coast Starlight line takes about 34 hours to travel from Los Angeles’s historic Union Station (pictured below) to Seattle’s King Street Station, but it covers a distance of 1377 miles (2216 km)—nearly the distance between the borders of Mexico and Canada.


We should keep in mind that, after walking and biking, trains are the most efficient way to travel. Amtrak, the US’s publicly funded railroad service, expends an estimated 1,600 BTUs of energy per passenger per mile, while buses use 3,300, planes use 2,500, and cars use 3,900! If we seriously want to use less energy and substantially reduce carbon emissions, we should travel by train much more often. From the perspective of climate change, although “carbon offset” programs have been attempted (with very limited success so far), nothing beats not emitting greenhouse gases in the first place.

Americans used to travel all the time by train, but with the triumph of the auto and aviation industries and the increased popularity of cars (with subsidized gas prices) and planes for long-distance travel, Amtrak ridership dropped to 16 million in 1972. Fortunately, ridership has doubled since then, and President Obama in 2011 committed his administration to a vision of giving “eighty percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within twenty-five years.”

The US needs to upgrade and expand its train lines and cars. Europe and China have trains that are at least twice as fast as ours, and Japan’s new Shinkansen bullet train goes 200 mph! Americans sometimes complain that the country is too big for trains, but China shows that it’s certainly possible. I think we need to push for high-speed trains, especially in California and the East Coast but also within the country, such as the California Zephyr line that links the Bay Area, Denver, and Chicago. This will take a lot of investment and time, but it will be worth it. Although the US auto industry has suffered in recent years, improving and expanding the rail system certainly would help the “green economy” and create many “green jobs”. And we should keep in mind that annual federal highway and aviation subsidies are currently gigantic ($41.5 and $16 billion in 2013, respectively) compared to Amtrak subsidies ($1.6 billion). The planned California high-speed rail will cost an estimated $68 billion to construct, but it will be built over many years.