Monday, September 15, 2014

Explaining racism to my child


As I often do on the weekend, I recruited my oldest sone, Owen, to help me with running an errand. I like hanging out with him and he likes riding in the front seat and feeling like a big kid. Plus, there's the magic of the car ride, which somehow causes kids to open up and talk more than they do when face-to-face in the house.

On the car's audio system we were listening to Blackalicious' "Supreme People." The chorus is pretty straight-forward---"Su-preme (Supreme, Supreme) [x8]", audio here---but something dawned on Owen:

O [looking at the media player display]: Ohhhhh! They're saying "supreme, supreme!" I thought they were saying "seriously? seriously?"

me [smiling]: Yup. That would be funny if he was saying "srsly?!" like you and Marcus do.

O: What does supreme mean?

me: It's similar to being super, or impressive, or very good at what you do. It can also mean that you're the best. 

O: Oh.

me: Do you know who he's referring to when he says that?

O [thinking]: Well, it says supreme people, so maybe he's talking about his friends.

me: Yup. But actually he's talking about an entire group of people. Can you think of who those people might be?

O [long pause]: Black people?

me: Yeah, that's right. Do you know why he might want to say that over and over?

O: No.

me: Well, it's because some people don't think that Black people are very good at things. They think they are inferior just because they are Black. Do you know which group of people often thinks that?

O: Yeah, white people.

me: Yes, sadly. They don't even know they're doing it a lot of the time. But we Black people can feel it. All the time. So we have to pump ourselves up, like Gift of Gab does in this song. We're actually supreme in all that we set our minds to do.

O: Well, I think it's like chess. There are black pieces and white pieces. And I think both sides are good, and I think both sides can win half of the time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Blogging about race, America and astronomy


I realize that my blogging frequency has been way down over the Summer. This is due to many factors, including spending more time with my family, having an incredibly productive research team, and because I've been spending a lot of time reading. Over the past year, I have read more than a book per month on the topic of race, racism and Black history. Why this sudden interest? you might ask. Well, my interest, while intensified lately, has always been thoroughly piqued. One cannot grow up in America as a person of color, and particularly as a Black person with our 400 year history of oppression, struggle, and courage, and not notice a few things.

But more recently as a professor, I have found myself in a position to make a difference. Since my very first NSF grant proposal, I have always advanced a Broader Impact statement geared toward the advancement of people of color in astronomy. I have always recognized the value of diversity in advancing science and the paucity of color in the annals of astronomy is obvious to anyone with a conscious and a knack for critical thinking. 

So I decided that I should embark on a fuller journey to understand the intersection of race and science, but first I needed a well-posed question. My question was rather simple: Why has there been no growth in the number of Black astronomers over the past 30 years? Or in simpler terms: Where are all the Black folk in astronomy?

Answering this straight-forward question required me to embark on a journey of learning. Just as I did last year when I became interested in asteroseismology, but lacked a formal education in the subject since it wasn't covered in my grad-level Stars class, my race-centered question required me to do some serious research. Every time over the past two years that I have sat down to write on the subject of race in astronomy, I have found myself staring at a blank page. I felt things emotionally, I had anecdotes to tell. But I lacked a framework of understanding race. Hell, I didn't even understand what "race" and "racism" really are, at least from an academic perspective, even if I understood them at gut-level as a Black man living in America.

My inspiration has come primarily from the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates (pronounced tah-nuh-hah-see coats), a blogger, writer, thinker and ninja-level arguer over at The Atlantic. Reading his posts, I always felt like a child listening in while the grown-ups discussed Matters of Importance. His writing style is informed from his experience on the streets as much as from his Howard University education, and as such it is in your face, raw and tough to swallow, especially for the ignorant, of which I was a long-time club member. But in one of his posts he gave his reading list, and it occurred to me: You know what? I'm smart, I'm an academic, and I have a Growth Mindset. If I want to learn and grow, then I need to invest the time and effort. As it is in science, so is it in history, psychology, sociology and African American Studies.

So in I dove and my life and worldview have been forever changed. So be forewarned: I will be blogging once again. And as before, I will continue seeking a better way of doing business in astronomy. But the past year has resulted in profound change in how I see the world around me, and I won't always slow down to bring readers up to speed. If you are confused, disoriented, baffled or offended, then I have a challenge to issue: pick up a book or 10 and get caught up! But if you feel a burning need to ask a question, ask away, but please do so with respect and more than a Tweets worth of words. Write paragraphs and only advance defensible arguments. You are not entitled to your opinions. You are only entitled to those that you can defend.

If you do join the conversation, I promise there is a huge reward in it for you, particularly if you have ideal beliefs such as the notion of a scientific meritocracy, as well as justice, fairness and equal opportunity in general. Most astronomers fancy themselves liberals or even progressives. If you are in this group, then know your identity will be challenged as I write and if you read. But know that an informed life is always better than a blissful life of ignorance.

I invite you to join me on this journey of exploration, learning and progress!


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Kepler: Back from the Dead

This is a guest post from my graduate student, Andrew Vanderburg. Over the past few months, Andrew has been focusing his attention on data collected by the crippled Kepler Space Telescope.  After being disabled in May of last year by the failure of the second of two reaction wheels used to point itself, Kepler has been given new life thanks to some brilliant work done by Ball Aerospace and the Kepler team. Here's my previous post about the K2 Extended Mission. 

Below, Andrew describes his work, which is documented in a recently accepted paper available here and which has recently been incorporated into the Kepler team's guest observer tools. Also, be sure to check out his website, where you can access corrected K2 data from an engineering test conducted in February on this interface. Who knows, you might even find a transiting planet!

Since its launch in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has revolutionized the field of exoplanetary science with the discovery of thousands of planet candidates, many of which are smaller than the Earth. Kepler’s science operations were prematurely halted, however, when the spacecraft was disabled in May of 2013 by the failure of the second of four reaction wheels used to point and stabilize the telescope. Because Kepler’s scientific punch came from its high precision enabled by its fine pointing control, many people assumed that Kepler’s exoplanet discovering days were over. 

Fortunately, the Kepler team and Ball Aerospace thought otherwise. Over the next six months after the failure of Kepler’s second reaction wheel, they devised a way to control Kepler with only two reaction wheels, balancing the spacecraft against the constant stream of photons and particles being ejected from the Sun, and correcting any imbalances with very precise burns of Kepler’s thrusters. Their brilliant work has led to the new (and recently approved) K2 mission, in which Kepler looks in new fields, moving every 75 days to look at a completely new set of stars, to search for new planets.

Graphic from the Kepler/K2 team describing the K2 mission strategy

One of the biggest uncertainties about the K2 mission was: “How well can Kepler measure photometry in this new operating mode?” If Kepler’s worsened ability to point itself degrades the quality of its data, it may be harder for the K2 mission to accomplish its goals of finding exoplanets in new environments and around different types of stars. When the Kepler team released data from a 9 day engineering test of the new operation mode taken in February, we attempted to answer that question. 

After four years of being spoiled by ultra-high-quality photometry from Kepler, our first look at the K2 data came as a bit of a shock. Unlike the pristine Kepler data, K2 data (shown below compared to Kepler in the first plot) had wild jagged features contaminating the light curve, which made it hard to see all but the deepest planet transits. In order to continue searching for small planets in the K2 mission, something would have to be done to improve the quality of the photometry.
Comparison of Kepler (bottom) and K2 (top). Raw K2 data is much noisier than Kepler data.
Fortunately, it turned that there was a way to improve the quality of K2 data. The additional noise in the data was caused by the spacecraft moving back and forth ever so slightly as it rolled due to a slight imbalance between the spacecraft and the Solar wind. Every six hours or so, Kepler’s thrusters fired to bring the telescope back to its original position. We found that even though raw K2 photometry was noisy, it was noisy in a predictable and consistent way, which meant there was a way to improve it. 

We did this by comparing the star’s brightness measured by Kepler at every position during its roll to other measurements taken nearby. When we corrected K2 data using other measurements taken nearby, we found that the quality of data was greatly improved, as we show in the image below. Overall we were able to improve raw K2 data by a factor of 2-5, and got back to within at least factor of 2 of Kepler -- for stars of a particular brightness between 12th and 13th magnitude, K2 performed with 35% of Kepler’s precision. K2 should be able to continue hunting for small exoplanets and doing impactful science even without two of its reaction wheels. 


Correcting the light curve based on the motion of the spacecraft substantially improves K2 data.

We have released our processed K2 data to the community and built a web interface to easily view and explore it. We encourage the community to take a look, explore, and learn the quirks of K2 data before the real science begins with data from the first K2 campaign fields. To learn more about our technique, download our paper describing the technique here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shark Week is about neither real sharks nor does it last a week

I was eating at the bar of a sea food restaurant the other night and they had Shark Week playing on the TV. I couldn't help but notice it and wonder, "They're still doing this?!" Yes, they are still doing this and much of it is still B.S.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday morning music break

Chockukmo with Good Night:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Hiring from a cognitively diverse pool

I really like this idea of hiring code validation specialists from the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Face it, most if not all scientists (astronomers) inhabit some position along the spectrum. We are good at doing repetitive tasks for long periods of time, we love telling people arcane facts, we can manipulate numbers and search for patterns quickly and efficiently. If these are some of the skills that we value in our field of science, why not specifically target people from a population that is diagnosed along these lines? 

Well, that's exactly what one start-up company is doing for code validation. A fun quote from the Slate article:
When they first started inviting me to come into the office, or to a drinks night they have every now and again, I would just kind of say, "You know, I'm kind of a little bit nervous because I’m kind of socially awkward," Leslie [one of the autism-spectrum employees] recounted. And [the boss] just kind of looked at me, and he was, like, "Mark, have you seen our team? Everyone’s socially awkward... Everyone’s a bunch of geeks, and they’re all very accepting and friendly."
I just hope we can say that everyone in astronomy is accepting and friendly when it comes time to do an article about how astronomy is harnessing the talent from among those on the autism spectrum. After all, it's not like we can deny that people on the spectrum exist among our ranks. Right?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Whoa! Congresswoman stands up for women in science

Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California's 14th district writes a remarkable letter to the Chief editor of Science and the AAAS about women in science: