Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trials Riding in the Moab

Look ma, no seat!

I <3 this video. The visuals are amazing, but unlike many Youtube videos, the sounds are almost equally amazing. I love how the bike sounds intermingle with the music.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Illustrated guide to getting a Ph.D.

It's the beginning of a new academic year, so it's a good time for first-year grad students, and everyone for that matter, to check out this wonderful illustrated guide.

Hat-tip to Prof. Comerford.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Two mind-blowing things

First thing: I knew Africa is big. But I didn't realize it is this big!

(from BuzzFeed)

The second thing is that people in Rhode Island actually talk like Lois Griffin from Family Guy! No, seriously. You should try it out. Go to Rhode Island, leave Providence, and listen. They seriously talk that way. Crazy, I know. But true! :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Impostor Syndrome

I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night in early 2010, about six months after I joined the faculty at Caltech. I woke up to the terrifying realization that I didn't have a contingency plan for my family for when I would inevitably be either let go or denied tenure. Erin woke up wondering what was wrong with me and I told her that I was sorry, but it was only a matter of time before my colleagues discovered how little I know about astronomy. They were going to discover that they made a mistake in hiring me as a professor. 

I remember this event vividly, and I can even recall the feeling that I was thinking critically and purely objectively. It's really amazing that I made this self-evaluation despite my achievements, my publication record, the job offers I had the year before, and the praise that I've received from my community. None of this mattered to me because I had managed to either fool everyone, or I simply worked much harder than my intrinsically talented peers. There were smart people (others), and people (like me) who had to work twice as hard to break even.

Since that time I have received counseling and treatment for acute anxiety, as I have written about previously. I now recognize that I was also suffering from something called the Impostor Syndrome. Many people, including myself, have heard about impostor syndrome, but few understand the symptoms. Further, when suffering from the syndrome, one has a tendency to feel that they alone are judging themselves objectively while everyone else is fooled by a partial picture of reality. While others might suffer while actually being good at their jobs, I'm the true exception. I know I'm not good enough while others are. 
Thus, it was a revelation to read an article on the topic from two years ago in the AAS publication on the Status of Women in Astronomy. The article is entitled Women and the Impostor Syndrome in Astronomy (however, as noted in the article, men can be affected, too). I'll cover the striking results of the survey in a later post, or you can (should) read it yourself.

This post is about the symptoms of the Impostor Syndrome, most of which I instantly recognized, either in my own past behaviors, or in the behavior of other astronomers:
Langford and Clance (1993) wrote that the syndrome is defined by “believing that one’s accomplishments came about  not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, and having manipulated other people’s impressions.” One key aspect of the imposter syndrome is the attribution of your own success to factors beyond your control, such as luck, while attributing the success of others to skill or knowledge.  
But it is not just external factors to which those with the imposter syndrome attribute their successes. People with the imposter syndrome can also discount their successes by attributing them to hard work, while believing that others sail through based on natural talent. Another version of the imposter syndrome is to feel that you have in some way, probably not consciously, tricked or fooled your colleagues into believing that you are much smarter than you really are. Perhaps you studied really hard and made a high score, but secretly you “know” that these achievements don’t reflect your true “inadequate” self.
The goal of this post is to get this information out there into the community. This is a real, widely recognized psychological phenomenon. The human mind is extraordinarily complicated, and we have only just recently begun to understand the mind on a quantitative, predictive level. But we do understand certain qualitative manifestations, and this syndrome is one.

Of course, the paradox is that people suffering from the impostor syndrome make the implicit assumption that they alone know the truth about their own abilities (at least until they get "found out.") This came up during a recent discussion I had with students in a prestigious astronomy department. After talking about the syndrome, one individual said, "Yes, I see how others could experience that. But what if you know that you are the exception?"

Well, there's a logical response to that question: you are here at one of the most elite universities in the world, the committee who selected your application from the hundreds submitted is staffed by highly capable individuals, and it was not in their best interest to be sloppy enough to admit low-ability students. So the prior expectation of a mistake is very small. As a chair of an admissions committee at a top university, I can attest to this low likelihood of making the mistake of admitting an untalented student. It takes a lot of money, time and effort to train a first-year grad student. We count on that investment paying off in years 2 through ~5, and we are badly hurt by having a student fail after the first year. Further, assuming that you have the ability to fool an admissions committee, or several committees, is, in itself, an overly flattering assessment of one's ability! It's just far more likely that the admissions committee made the right assessment.

Unfortunately, in matters of the human mind, logic does not always hold sway, even for the smartest people. I am very fortunate to now recognize my own abilities. It took work, but I am now on the other side. After I give talks, when people compliment me I can simply say, "Thanks! I really appreciate your feedback," instead of ducking my head, murmuring "thanks" and assuming that I've fooled yet another scientist. I can truly hear the compliment and allow it to motivate me.

It's an awesome feeling, and a wonderful world to live in. If you have even the slightest inkling that you may have the syndrome, please seek counseling. Do it for yourself. But also do it for the community. Astronomy, and science in general, is stronger when you hold your head high, present your research with confidence, and boldly forge ahead with exploring the Universe.

Asking questions in class as a high-stakes proposition

We all know the situation well, which is why "Anyone, anyone?" resonates so well as comedy. The professor asks the class for questions, no hands go up, the lecture proceeds. The young professor has ambitions to teach a highly interactive course, yet no one speaks up, and frustration ensues. What went wrong? Why won't anyone raise a hand?

To my mind the answer is quite simple, but it has taken me more than 15 years to figure it out. The problem is that asking a question in a lecture hall or even a class of 10 students, represents a high-stakes proposition for the student. Worse yet, the proposition is low-reward. Thus, a student not asking questions in class is a student acting rationally to the odds presented them.

I'll flip this coin. If you get it right, I pay you a buck. If you get it wrong, you owe me $100. Wait, why are you walking away?!

Smart money walks away.

So what is the high-risk proposition? As a professor I'm requesting that a student to ask a question and thereby admit ignorance. We say there are no dumb questions, but take an extreme case of asking about a basic algebra concept in the middle of a General Relativity course. Or asking a colloquium speaker a question that was covered on their first intro slide. No dumb questions? Yeah right! Students know that's bullshit. There are plenty of really bad questions. In fact, there are far more bad questions than good. So by not raising their hand, a student is folding in a situation with far more risk than reward, and an upside-down odds ratio.

Speaking of risk, the student not only risks asking a dumb question in the presence of a professor, but they also risk asking it in front of all their classmates. In a class of 10, this is bad enough. In a lecture hall of 200? Yikes! It's just like one of my favorite movie scenes (WARNING: video below not safe for work or kids):

And how about the prospective reward? The student asks a question that is on-point. Bravo! The prof may say, "Excellent question," gives the answer, and move on with the lecture. However, in the student's mind, this is par for the course. The student is supposed to have done the background reading, understood that background, and followed the lecture up to this point. But if a student has done all of this when it is expected, then how much of a compliment does "Excellent question" represent? As Chris Rock said, "That's what you're supposed to do, you low-expectation-having [explicative]! What do you want, a cookie?"

By the way, this recently happened to me during a lecture at MIT. I saw that Jim Kasting was giving a EAPS seminar talk, and I was fortunate to be able to attend. At one point he was talking about oxygen-rich atmospheres and by analogy referred to one of the Apollo accidents resulting from a fire in an oxygen-rich environment. He couldn't remember which Apollo mission it was, and I blurted out "Apollo 13." That's what I get for watching too many movies. Wait, that's what I get for taking bad odds.

There's the problem. The best solution that I've come up with is to break the class into smaller groups and get them talking together, and asking questions on a more intimate level. Asking a dumb question in a room of hundreds is a proposition one should almost always walk away from. But asking your peer something basic is what we do all the time, but usually in private. So if you'd like your class to ask questions, pause the lecture, have them turn to another student nearby and tell them something they don't quite understand. The other student can then explain it, or as it frequently happens, admits that they don't understand it either  At that point, both students can ask the question together, with the full confidence that their question isn't so dumb and that that they are not the only one lost.

I once tried this out in the middle of a colloquium. It resulted in so many good questions that I had to cut the impromptu Q&A session off so I could get to the end of my talk. Meanwhile, the times when I've stopped in the middle of a colloquium and asked for questions, I typically only get them from the sage astro-wizard sitting in the front row.

The next time you teach a class, which many of you are doing this time of year, give this risk-mitigation strategy a try. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with how interactive your classroom or lecture hall suddenly becomes.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Owen's Second Goal of the Season

Owen's second game was earlier today: The Yellow Hornets vs. Salsa Verde (best name ever). I managed to catch Owen's second goal of the season on video, below. I love how he stutter-stepped the way we practiced, and then kicked it through the defender's legs. Muy bueno!

The game ended in a 3-3 tie, which was the best possible outcome given that Salsa Verde is coached by a close family friend, and one of Owen's best friends plays on the team. Owen's coach is doing an amazing job with this team. They pass the ball way better than a group of 7-year-olds has any business doing. On three separate shots-on-goal, the shot was preceded by at least 3 passes. It's beautiful to see Owen learning good fundies!

PhDetours, Episode 2: Astronomy Atop Mauna Kea

Featuring my altitude-sick postdoc, Phil :)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Science: Increasing Awesome

...instead of decreasing suck. Hat-tip to Julia!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Goal! Owen Johnson, GOOOOAAAALLLL!

Owen's team, The Yellow Jackets, played the Yellow Falcons today in the season opener of the AYSO under-8 division. The Jackets won 5-1 through a combination of outstanding goal tending and an unrelenting offensive attack that kept the ball on one side of the field for most of the game.

Owen was part of the Big-3 that assisted or scored on 4 out of the 5 points. Owen had two assists and a goal. He was, dare I say, en fuego! Also outstanding where his team mates Luke and Boden, as well his coach, Hector, who was did a great job of balancing encouragement and instruction.

Wow, what a difference a year makes. The kids were passing, dribbling with their heads up, and hustled hard despite the heat. You could tell the whole team was simply more invested in the game than they typically were last season.

Amazingly, I managed to get Owen's goal on film with my phone. The yellow-on-yellow matchup looks more confusing on my phone than it did live. Owen's team has white lettering, black sleeves and a slightly orange hue, compared to the other team's more day-glow yellow and black lettering. Owen dribbles hard past most of the defense, shoots, misses, Boden (blonde) gathers the ball and passes to Owen for the score.

I'm one proud father!

Friday, September 7, 2012

My project in the news

I've been meaning to write a post about Project Minerva, a joint venture between Caltech, Penn State (Prof. Jason Wright) and the University of Montana (Prof. Nate McCrady). Fortunately, the JPL press office took care of the writeup for me:

A snippet:

Compared to many other telescopes, especially ones powerful enough to spot the exceedingly faint signatures of Earth-size exoplanets, Minerva is designed to be deployed quickly and relatively inexpensively. The system will eventually consist of four 0.7-meter, off-the shelf telescopes set up in an array on Palomar Mountain in southern California. Each telescope will be able to observe targets either on its own or in sync with the others, giving the system a large amount of flexibility. Using the small telescopes together will give Minerva the power of a much larger telescope and make it one of the only ground-based instruments capable of finding rocky exoplanets like Earth.
The first telescope will be constructed next month! Stay tuned for more updates.

A sneak-peak at our robot overlords

After reading Robopocalypse, velociraptors have been replaced at the top of my list of worst irrational fears with things like this gaining sentience and roaming the streets along with bands of robocars:

Once that thing figures out how to mate with the Cat excavator in my previous post, we're well and truly hosed.

Also, did you hear the one about the robot that can run 28 miles per hour? Time to start thinking about urban guerrilla anti-robot warfare tactics...

The video above is from The Dish

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mighty Machine!

One of Marcus' favorite videos, showing an excavator climbing onto a train coal car. It's crazy how the machine seems to be so alive. I couldn't help but A) wonder if this is a standard operation mode for an excavator and B) hope that they didn't turn the other way and get tangled in those power lines.

Sorry it isn't a John Deere tractor, Amy...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mars Vista

Mars or Utah?

From the NASA/JPL Mars Science Lab website:

Focusing the 100-millimeter Mastcam
This image is from a test series used to characterize the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity rover. It was taken on Aug. 23, 2012, and looks south-southwest from the rover's landing site.

The 100-millimeter Mastcam has three times better resolution than Curiosity's 34-millimeter Mastcam, though it has a narrower field of view. For comparison, see

The gravelly area around Curiosity's landing site is visible in the foreground. Farther away, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the image, the terrain falls off into a depression (a swale). Beyond the swale, in the middle of the image, is the boulder-strewn, red-brown rim of a moderately-sized impact crater. Farther off in the distance, there are dark dunes and then the layered rock at the base of Mount Sharp. Some haze obscures the view, but the top ridge, depicted in this image, is 10 miles (16.2 kilometers) away.

Scientists enhanced the color in one version to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain. A raw version is also available.

An annotated version of the image indicates the distances to different features. They were calculated using a computer program that analyzes data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

To see a close-up of the layered buttes of Mount Sharp, see

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS