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Showing posts from 2013

Closing Time at the “Astronomy Nightclub”

Today's guest post is from an astronomer friend of mine who moved to the states relatively recently. Her story is not her's alone. I have heard the types of stories she will describe below from many independent sources over the years (dozens, sadly). I have found it increasingly disturbing that certain serial harassers are free to ply their disgusting trade freely within our community. They are not reprimanded because they are highly skilled at covering their tracks and intimidating their victims. Also, universities tend to protect their high-profile professors much quicker than they are to back their younger employees. 
Readers: no matter how you might perceive the interactions described below, the key thing to consider is not whether you feel it's right or wrong. Human interactions involve two people, and two sets of experiences and opinions. So please avoid the simple-minded response of, "Jeez, I don't see why this is such a big deal!" in your comments. Tha…

Viral post: Is science is in the eye of the beholder? [Hint: NO]

December has proven to be an extremely busy month for me, so with my monthly Women In Astronomy blog post due, I again turned to my friend and colleague Renee Hlozek, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, to write a guest post in my stead. And damn if her post didn't go instantly viral, taking the #4 most-read spot among WIA blog posts by garnering 3600 reads in the past week. So I figured I'd repost it here just in case any of my readers missed it. 

Take it away, Renee!
Side note: The past couple months haven't been great for women in science and science journalism. This postlinks to all the stories of racism and sexism as as experienced by Danielle Lee (#standingwithdnlee!!) and the sexual harassment allegations made by Monica Byrne and Hannah Waters. To be honest, I am pretty overcome by the stories of late. I (like a surprisingly large number of female scientists I know) have experienced sexual harassment, albeit of a rather different kind to that discussed …

The Transformative Power of Lying to Yourself

Sarah Rugheimer is a truly amazing person who I've had the great privilege of getting to know better since moving to Harvard. She climbs mountains, collects pond water to teach kids about astrobiology, performs traditional Irish dance, and she also happens to be an outstanding graduate student in the Harvard Astronomy Department working on the remote detection of biomarkers in terrestrial exoplanets.Outside of the department, she is the Director of Communications and Senior Editor of the policylab.org blog. We recently had a conversation about the power of the brain to fool itself into going beyond its limitations, and I asked her to write her experiences with this for a guest post. 
I hated my hornpipe dance. I hated everything about it. I hated its music. I hated its rhythm. I hated the dance choreography. But I had to dance it at the qualifier in eight months for the World Irish dance championships. But even the most passionate hate can be transformed to love and success…by lyi…

The NBA's top towel-waver

Every NBA roster has that last dude on the bench. When you think about it, it's not that bad of a job. You get to practice basketball with the best players in the world, you get to travel with the team to various cities, you have one of the best seats in the house, and all without any media pressure and a pretty nice paycheck to boot.

Of course, it's unlikely that many NBA players see things this way. You don't make it to the NBA based on your humility, and the NBA has some of the largest egos in the sports world this side of the NFL.

This is exactly why Kent Bazemore is one of my favorite NBA players. Hailing from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, Bazemore is the backup, backup, backup point guard on the Golden State Warriors (in Oakland, CA), behind Steph Curry, Tony Douglas and Nemanja frikkin' Nedovic. The last time I saw him play was in garbage time with 7 seconds left on the clock, after all of the starters were pulled off the court to standing ovations af…

Snow Shovels

It snowed last night here in Cambridge, MA. It snowed quite a bit. I mean, in a relative sense it snowed infinitely compared to a typical Pasadena, CA snow day, so I might be overreacting a bit. But, wow, there's about a metric shload of snow out there right now.
Thanks to Erin's forethought, we were prepared with two snow shovels, and a scraper for our car windows. We also have a nice metal garden shovel and an old broom. We used all of these implements to ensure compliance with the city's Snow and Ice Removal Ordinance.
On a related note, my back is as old as I am, making my back a 36-year-old back. That's a pretty old back. You know what else? My 36-year-old back hurts quite a bit after shoveling snow all morning. So did Erin's 3N-year-old back (where N is an integer between 0 and 9).
These simple facts inspired us to look into snow-shoveling ergonomics. It turns out that there are, in fact, ergonomic snow shovels, much like the one our neighbor was using this …

2013 NBA Countdown: #3 Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant (from Texas-Austin) is a scoring monster. He's a two-guard stuck in a small forward's body with the strength of a power forward and the wingspan of a center. He also does it all. He plays smothering defense, rebounds, handles the ball, passes and he's one of the most consistent 20-point scorers in the league.

Owen says (and actually typed this time!), Kevin Durant
Does tuff 2'sBuries 3's Does layupsPuts lots of effort into the gameEven #10 in his top 10 is goodSometimes dunksWhen he does...WATCH OUT!!!

Kevin is also quite stylish


Intelligence in Astronomy: The Growth of My Intelligence

When I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley, I had a very rough first year. I started astronomy graduate school with a B.S. in physics from a small mid-western school and zero preparation in astronomy. I didn't use a telescope until I was 21 years old, I hadn't taken an astronomy course as an undergrad, and upon my arrival at Berkeley I couldn't tell you why the moon went through phases. Seriously. I learned moon phases as a TA of Astro 10.
I remember very clearly heading down to the sixth floor of Campbell Hall for my Stellar Structure class, taught by Prof. Frank Shu. As I walked down the stairs with the other students, two of the second-years, Jason Wright and Erik Rosolowsky, were engaged in an intense discussion the likes of which I had never heard before from students. They were discussing whether the forward-scattering of light is the same as inverse Compton scattering, and under which conditions one description is better than the other (or at least this is how I r…

The simple power of presence in even modest numbers

Upon arriving in Cambridge I've had the pleasure of getting to know Prof. Chris Rose, who is an engineering professor at Rutgers, currently visiting MIT as an MLK Scholar. We've been talking about diversity in the sciences, with a particular focus on increasing the footprint of what Chris refers to as "the Greater Us," referring to the small community of Black folk among the American science professoriate. Sadly, "small" in this case means epsilon-small. 
Even in 2013, there are only of order 10 Black professors at top-40 astronomy institutions according to this poll taken circa 2007. That's about 1% of all astronomy professors in the US, compared to the 12.6% representation of Blacks in the US population. The same order-of-magnitude discrepancy in representation persists across all science disciplines, from physics to chemistry to comp sci. Decades after the Civil Rights era, the overwhelming majority of all US science professors are white (and male).…

Intelligence in Astronomy: Compendium Thus Far

I realize now that I should have referenced previous posts in my Intelligence in Astronomy series in some of my more recent posts. Read in isolation, I suppose my past couple posts would be confusing otherwise. Here is a list of posts so far:

Intelligence: Nature or Nurture? Both, together!
Preview 1 (with some motivation for what follows)
What you think and why it matters
What is Intelligence (Part 1)?
What is Intelligence (Part 2)?
The Growth of my Intelligence
John Cleese on Creativity

Stay tuned for more to come!


Intelligence in Astronomy: The Fixed Mindset and the Cult of Smart

(For my previous posts in this series see this handy compendium. In particular, if you missed it you should check out this post on fixed vs. growth mindsets)

The key feature of a fixed mindset is that intelligence is a fixed, inborn property that does not change in time for a given individual. Those with fixed mindsets tend to see outcomes such as success and failure as a result of these fixed, personal traits. "He didn't get the job because he's not smart" or "I didn't pass the test because I'm not smart" or "she's not a good scientist because she's not smart." I'm sure there are other personal qualities that people could focus on other than smartness, but in the realm of science for many people with fixed mindsets it comes down to who is and is not "smart."

I like to refer to this fixation on smartness as the Cult of Smart. Somewhat pejorative? Yes, indeed. Apropos? Big-time. Primarily because this stance is based …

Intelligence in Astronomy: What Is Intelligence? (Part 2)

One night in Cambridge, England in the late 1970's, two astrophysics postdocs were sitting at a table outside of the Ft. Saint George Pub. One of the astrophysicists was Ed Turner (Princeton) and the other was Scott Tremaine (Institute for Advanced Study). As my good friend, Ed Turner, tells the story At some point we fell to debating which of our famous senior colleagues was the best scientist.  Ostriker, Rees, Peebles, Lynden-Bell and others appeared in the conversation. We failed to find a compelling case for any one of them or even for comparing any two of them; generally there were arguments for many or both alternatives re who was the best.  I can't recall whether we discussed only theorists or also some observers.  Anyway, at some point we noticed that while it was very hard to say whether X was better than Y or vice versa as an overall scientist, it was often relatively easy to say which was better at some particular aspect of science...like who had the most extensive…

Intelligence in Astronomy: What Is Intelligence? (Part 1)

In my previous post we saw how you, the readers of this blog, see intelligence as a key to success. The vast majority of you also see intelligence as something that can increase in time. But a question was left lingering: What do we mean by intelligence?

Is intelligence encapsulated in standardized tests? How about the IQ test? Here's what a famous psychologist, Alfred Binet, had to say about the IQ test:
“The scale [the IQ test], properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”"With practice, training, and above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally become more intelligent than we were before."

Jason Wright on Waste Heat and Avoiding Malthus' Prediction

Prof. Jason Wright (PSU) is searching for evidence of galaxy-wide alien civilizations who have avoided Malthusian catastrophes by constructing circumstellar swarms solar arrays. Here's an excellent, TED-style talk of how he and his group are doing it. For more, check out his series of blog posts on his SETI project.

If you're looking for a well-delivered, through-provoking colloquium talk for next year, you should drop Jason a line.

Things are looking up. Really, they are!

Prof. Turner sent a link to this article that gives 23 plots that you should find encouraging. Things are looking up compared to the past. Science is improving and lengthening our lives while decreasing the likelihood of dying from things such as malaria. Speaking of, here's one of the 23 encouraging plots:


When governments spend money on research, the investment pays off. Money in leads to more money out in the form of decreased spending on treating, e.g. malaria. Science FTW!

Intelligence in Astronomy: What You Think and Why It Matters

In astronomy we are acutely aware of the importance of intelligence for success in science. Last week I posted a poll to gauge the opinions on intelligence of the readers of this blog, and most of you are current or former astronomers/physicist or other scientists, or know astronomers/physicists or other scientists. The first question (statement):
The vast majority of you strongly agree with the notion that intelligence is important for success in science. But what do I mean by intelligence? That's a hugely important question, but I left the definition out of this question for a reason. Back to this in a bit.

The next statement:

This is rather remarkable to me. However you readers define intelligence, the majority of you feel that it is a mutable quality of an individual. More specifically, you all feel that it is something that is not a fixed trait. Can it increase in time?
The readers of this blog not only believe that intelligence can change over the course of a person's li…

Intelligence in Astronomy: Preview 3

Stuffed with turkey, tired of family, bummed about the post-Thanksgiving workweek? Well, at least you have tomorrow evening to look forward to! The Intelligence in Astronomy post series starts at 4pm Eastern Sunday Dec 1. Sign up to follow this blog by clicking the little blue button on the right-hand panel of this page. Add this to your RSS feed. We're almost there!

Intelligence in Astronomy: Preview 2

Do you have Successful Intelligence? How do you project into the 7-dimensional hyperspace of excellence devised by Turner & Tremaine in the late 1970s? What is you-dot, or


and why do I think it's one of the most important ingredients for success in science, and vastly more important than you(t).

Answers to these questions and more starting this Sunday, and running for several weeks thereafter.

First Planet Detection From Minerva

The Project Minerva team has been hard at work calibrating and characterizing Telescope #1, which is in an Aqawan enclosure on California Blvd, on the Caltech campus in Pasadena. This test rig allows us to work out the kinks with the telescope and enclosure control systems without having to fly/drive back and forth from campus to an observatory. Having a test rig right next to the Minerva team's offices has paid huge dividends thus far. We have overcome a major telescope hardware/software malfunction, identified improper coatings on some of our optical elements, and brought our telescope throughput up to spec, all in far less time than it would have taken if we went straight to the mountaintop.
This past Sunday night, Caltech postdoc Jon Swift and fourth-year PhD candidate Mike Bottom were at the controls of the telescope measuring the amount of starlight that makes it through the telescope optics and onto the actual detector, known as the telescope throughput. To do this, they m…

Kepler 2: Photometry, With a Vengance

The highly successful NASA Kepler Mission was a beautiful thing, and its beauty was primarily in its simplicity. The mission is based on a 1-meter Schmidt camera in space that resides in an orbit about the Sun with a semimajor axis slightly larger than the Earth's. This "Earth-trailing" orbit allowed it to maintain a continuous gaze on a single target field near the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, just off of the Galactic plane.

Once Kepler reached its orbit, it blew away a dust shield that covered the front of the telescope and from that point onward there were very minimal moving parts. On the space telescope there is only a single instrument: a 340 megapixel CCD imager of epic proportions. There are no other instruments to swap in and out of the light path, no filters, not even a shutter. For four years Kepler measured the brightnesses (relative fluxes) of ~150,000 target stars searching for periodic eclipses of planetary companions.

The Kepler telescopes only major …

Intelligence in Astronomy: Preview 1

As my mentor Sara Seager recently told me, my appointment at Harvard is a huge honor, a huge opportunity and also a huge responsibility. I have been given tremendous resources and a highly supportive department with strong leadership. I also have a big, highly visible stage on which to perform. On the research front, I have ambitious plans to discover and characterize the nearest Earth-like planets using existing and new instrumentation (Project Minerva), with an eye toward the NASA TESS mission and JWST. My goal is to make the discoveries and do the careful statistical analyses necessary to advance our knowledge of the formation and evolution of planets like our own.

My opportunities and responsibilities do not end there, nor do my ambitions. Here's an exerpt from my recently updated teaching statement:
I recognize that just because institutions produce good outcomes does not mean that those institutions are optimized. Astronomy is an excellent, yet non-optimized institution. I w…

Poll on attitudes about intelligence

I'm curious what you, dear reader, think about intelligence, both in yourself and others. Please take < 1 minute to fill out this quick poll. Seriously, it's super-fast because it only involves reading and clicking a mouse. (Note that the form scrolls within the blog-post frame. Scroll down to see the last bit of the final question)


(Note that the form scrolls within the blog-post frame. Scroll down to see the last bit of the final question)

Intelligence: Nature or Nurture? Both, together!

Lately, I've become obsessed with understanding a fundamental problem in astronomy. We're all familiar with this problem, yet I've found very few good answers among my conversations with astronomers. I've found many clues, plenty of leads, but no fundamental understanding. For better answers, I have decided that I need to turn to psychology. But I digress. What's the question?! I'm interested in the nature of intelligence, and the role intelligence plays in success, particularly in the realm of astrophysics. More specifically: why do some students excel while others struggle, when all of them look about the same when we admit them? (And: is this even a well-posed question?!)

I'm currently reading Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. The book is absolutely fascinating. I'm very much looking forward to meeting him in person during an upcoming trip to NYC (he's a prof at NYU).

I'm on chapter 3, but today I felt compelled to rer…

2013 NBA Countdown: #5 Paul George

Yes, the season started a couple weeks ago. But that's also when I went out of town for a couple of trips. I'm back now and Owen and I want to continue our countdown, T-plus-N days from the start of the season. Number five on our list is 6-foot-8 small forward, Paul George, out of Fresno State. So far, Owen and I have partial toward guards, perhaps because we're both fairly short, ourselves. George was a big surprise to me last season, mainly because living in LA didn't afford me many opportunities to watch the Indiana Pacers play. But the team went deep into the playoffs, crushing their opponents before eventually squaring off against Lebron, Wade and the Heat. George just blew up, scoring 27 in two different games in the series, against a strong Heat backcourt, and hitting a key jumper at the end of game six. My prediction is that George will have a big year in 2013-2014.

Owen's take on George:
Shoots lots of 3sShoots from the side of the courtDoesn't do much…

When N_hours is badly overestimated

From The Atlantic (via Sarah), this interesting graphic showing how badly people tend to overestimate the number of hours worked each week. You can find more details in the short writeup. This makes me think about the infamous letter to the astro grad students about the need to put in 80-100 hour work weeks, and my own overestimate of N_hours, and my readers calling me out on it.

2013 NBA Countdown: #6 Chris Paul

Let's face it. This household likes point guards. I've spent a lot of time in this space talking about the hybrid "1.5 guards." Well, the 6 food 3 inch Paul, from Wake Forest, is a pure one. He looks first to set up his teammates with his exceptional ball handling and passing. He keeps his scoring in reserve, often waiting until key moments to remind everyone how well he can finish at the rim, or pull up for a three-point jump shot.

What I find most impressive about Paul is his ability to rebound from the guard spot. He's not tall, but he's built like a fire hydrant and he has a real nose for the ball. When playing for New Orleans he has several seasons during which he averaged 5+ rebounds a game, including his rookie season. With the Clippers he has a full house of big-men to handle most of the rebounds, but Paul still hauls in 4.4 a game as of last season. Over his career, he has averaged 18.6 points and an astounding 9.8 assists per game. He's had thr…

2013 NBA Countdown: #7 Kyrie Irving

When I first started watching basketball, I learned that there were two kinds of guards. One was the 2-guard, or shooting guard, whose job it is to work his/herself open for jumpshots or driving layups. The other guard is the point guard (the 1), whose job it is to handle the ball and look to set up the scorers, including the 2-guard. However, my and Owen's top-10 list is dominated by a new type of guard. Think of them as the 1.5-guards, who can do all of the above.

Kyrie Irving, from Duke, fits the bill of the 1.5-guard. He has some of the best ball-handling abilities in the league, amazing court sense, and he can be unselfish. However, he can also hang onto the ball and score 40 in a night. He's smaller than Russell Westbrook but more willing to get his team mates in the game. And he's quicker and generally more electrifying than Steph Curry, hence his #7 spot on our list, ahead of both Westbrook and Curry.

Owen says:

Makes lots of swishesDoesn't do much dunksIs good…