## Posts

Showing posts from January, 2013

### Cartoon Owen

Owen and I had dinner with Jorge Cham and his lovely family this weekend. We also saw his studio where the PhD magic happens. He sketched a portrait of Owen on his computer screen/canvas and Owen colored it with his cool stylus. The result is pretty uncanny!

### Microhistory made (I can tweet!)

I have 7 followers! Thanks for jumping on board, dear friends. I feel so much less curmudgeony right now. #Johndiscoversoldtechnology
— John Asher Johnson (@astrojohnjohn) January 28, 2013 Can a brotha get some followers? :)

### Annika Peter: More Facts

To continue my exploration of gender parity in astronomy, I have called on my friend and fellow astronomer Annika Peter to guest blog for me.Annika and I have had several illuminating discussions over coffee about academia in general and women in science in particular. Here's the second in a series of posts from Annika. The first can be found here. The data contained herein has informed a number of articles that I'll post soon.
Women scientists in academia and family structure:  A number of studies indicate that, at the faculty level, a large proportion of women physicists and astronomers are partnered with other academic scientists (especially other physicists!).  The exact numbers are hard to come by---a lot of the time, all physical scientists are lumped together in studies, even though there are hints that there are major differences across fields (with Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research finding that physicists have the most “endogamous” marriage habits).  I h…

Have you heard about the Up-goer Five contest? The challenge is to explain your research using only the 1000 most commonly used words. Here's what my research group is up to this week. Also check out Prof. Wright's research statement.

The space team put a far-looking light cup in space to get light from stars. The light cup looks for star light to get smaller when a world goes in front of a star. We make sure that the light-small that is seen is really from a world and not from a star around a star. We also see how big the star is and what it is made out of and how hot it is. To do these things we use big light-cups on the ground. We then see how long it takes for the world to go around the star, how far the world is from the star, and how big the world is. Sometimes the world is smaller than our world, and that makes us very happy to share what we found with people on this world. It would make us especially happy if the world was both small and warm enough for water. We hope t…

### Owen's haircut

After using my old Oster clippers for about two years too long, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a new set. I went with the Wahl Lithium-Ion Cordless.I have absolutely no idea why I waited so long to get a real set of clippers. These things handle like a dream. They're light, ergonomic, quiet and going cordless is the only way to go.
Plus, they cut like a hot knife through butter. Owen's hair grows in 3-4 separate swirl patterns. Following his lines with my old clippers was like trying to trace a van Gogh painting with a dried-out ballpoint pen on a chain. But the Wahl's just zip right on through, against the grain or from the side, it doesn't matter. Haircut night used to take 10-15 minutes per head. Tonight, it only took 5-7 minutes per head.
Here's Owen's before and after shot:

### The cost of science

Over the past few years U.S. astrophysics has hit hard times financially. Everyone is feeling the pain as they submit ever more grant applications each year, only to get more rejection letters citing the lack of funding provided by Congress.

Science is an expensive enterprise. It takes money to pay student, postdoc, engineer and professor salaries. Telescopes require a lot of funding each year to maintain. For example, a night on the Keck 10-meter telescope costs $100,000, or about \$167 per minute. And that's a bargain compared to ALMA, LSST and JWST.

So let's put the tremendous national cost of astronomy on an easy-to-understand scale. Take the Iraq War. The total direct costs of the war from 2003 to 2010 were about a trillion dollars, or 390 million dollars per day.

The combined NASA Astrophysics and NSF AST astrophysics budgets are 1 billion dollars a year. That's a lot of money. Tax payers spend a billion bucks a year on astrophysics. Think about it, that's 2.5 da…

### Work-Life Balance Through Working Efficiently (Part 3)

Avoid the land of diminishing returns
People, I can't stress this enough: avoid the land of diminishing returns, also known since ancient times as the Realm of Wind and Sadness. This is a cold, barren wasteland where weary souls wander listlessly, staring at their computer screens murmuring, "I can get 2-3% improvement. Just a bit more. Almost there…"
Meanwhile, in the Land of Productivity there are scientists who have identified the key physics of their problem, sloughed off the unimportant second- and third-order effects, and are happily shepherding their Nth first-author publication to ApJ (where N is large). Look at the contented smiles on their faces as they use the time they save on their project to hang out with friends on a Friday night, or spend dinner time chatting with their spouse and kids.
Roughly speaking, 20% of your effort goes into completing 80% of the project. Squeezing that last 20% requires the other 80% effort. Keep in mind that these numbers aren…

### Training Day

This reminds me of the story of an MIT prank from back in the day. The story goes that MIT students spent a Summer going to Harvard's football stadium wearing striped shirts, blowing whistles and spreading bird seed.

### Work-Life Balance Through Working Efficiently (Part 2)

In a previous post I presented a simple relationship between academic happiness and happiness, number of responsibilities and impact of the stuff you do. In this post I continue with some of the consequences of that simple relationship.
Learn to work smarter rather than harder

One of the best recommendation letters I've read stated that the applicant wasn't just smart, but she worked smart. The recommender went on to describe how the applicant was good at identifying projects that yielded huge impact (large $\eta$) relative to the amount of work invested. On the flip side, I know of a lot of extremely smart individuals who are stuck in postdoc positions because they focus too much on topics that very few people really care about. Don't get me wrong, you should pursue topics that move you. But if you are looking for a job, you have to offer something in return. Working on projects that don't help other scientists or that don't advance the field is not offering much …

### Work-Life Balance Through Working Efficiently (Part 1)

Let's face it, if you're a professional scientist the number of responsibilities you have will not decrease with time. As a postdoc, I looked back wistfully at the halcyon days of grad study, particularly the time I spent as an Nth-year. I had so few responsibilities! Now as a prof, I look back at those glorious postdoc years when I had so little I had to do. And if you want nostalgia, how about that first year as a prof when I didn't even have to teach?!

To look at it another way, I think of my ability to do more at each stage of my career as being like a telescopic camping cup, like the one shown in Figure 1. At each stage you don't think you can take on anything more, yet at the next stage you find a way to pull up the next segment and increase your capacity.
But what allows us to pull up an additional segment? If the number of responsibilities is increasing, then it must be our ability to do more with the same amount of time; we must somehow become more efficient. …

### Billions and Billions of planets

PASADENA, Calif.—Look up at the night sky and you'll see stars, sure. But you're also seeing planets—billions and billions of them.At least.
That's the conclusion of a new study by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) that provides yet more evidence that planetary systems are the cosmic norm. The team made their estimate while analyzing planets orbiting a star called Kepler-32—planets that are representative, they say, of the vast majority in the galaxy and thus serve as a perfect case study for understanding how most planets form. "There's at least 100 billion planets in the galaxy—just our galaxy," says John Johnson, assistant professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech and coauthor of the study, which was recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. "That's mind-boggling."
"It's a staggering number, if you think about it," adds Jonathan Swift, a postdoc at Caltech and lead author of t…

### The Caltech ExoLab at AAS

I'm very proud of my group at Caltech: The ExoLab. My goal upon arriving at Caltech as a professor was to set up a diverse research team working on a diverse collection of projects spanning theory, observation, and instrumentation. Thanks to the outstanding students and postdocs working with me, we have attained that goal over the past three years. Go team!

We've also managed to be quite productive over the past year, as evidenced by the large number of talks and posters we'll present at the upcoming American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach next week. My postdocs, grad students and undergrads will be presenting every day of the meeting. Be sure to to stop by and chat with us, and our collaborators, about our work focused on the detection and characterization of exoplanets and the stars they orbit.

149.06.Minerva: A Dedicated Observatory for the Detection of Small Planets in the Solar Neighborhood
Kristina Hogstrom; John A. Johnson; Jason Wright; Nate McCrady; Jona…